Artist Shani Crowe was 12 years old when she conceived the idea for her first art show. She had gotten really good at braiding her own hair, and she wanted to create various braid styles using rainbow-colored hair and wire, then photograph them. Now, 15 years later, her idea has come to fruition with the help of 3Arts, a non-profit organization in Chicago that works to promote local artists.
Crowe’s show Braids, which opened April 8, features 10 black-and-white images of black women with intricate braids that might as well be crowns or some other form of royal headdress. “I really love the idea of making women that I know look regal, as regal as they are in real life,” Crowe told me. She handpicked the models (some of her closest friends), took and edited the photographs, and braided all of the hair. The braid that took longest to complete required 12 hours of work over the course of two days.
We spoke with the Chicago native about how she got into braiding hair, her connection with black women, and the importance of preserving black hairstyles.
How did you get into braiding?
I spent a lot of time at my grandma’s house and my older cousins or aunts would braid my hair. I became interested through watching them doing other people’s hair. I would practice on my dolls. Then, around the time I was eight or nine, I finally got one of my cousins to let me try to braid their hair. The braids were wack, but I definitely was diligent about perfecting my craft. Once I got a little older and my aunt couldn’t do the designs that I wanted in my hair, I started doing it myself and that was around the time I was 11. The styles that I would create on myself attracted a client base, some of which are still clients of mine to this day. I never really pursued making a business of it, but it just became that because I was really passionate about it.
What connection do you find with braiding both your own hair and the hair of other women?
The satisfaction of knowing that everything is in my own hands as far as the way I look. My mom didn’t know how to do hair. It’s like, you look crazy or you figure out how to do it yourself. I had control over how I looked. It was a way for me to beautify myself. Then it became a platform through which I helped other women look beautiful and feel good about themselves. [When braiding,] you are always having some sort of conversation, and something that your client might say may shed some light on a situation that you are dealing with in your life. You never know the impact that you have on somebody, spending that much time with them, working so close to them.
There is this photographer, J.D. Okhai Ojeikere, that your work reminds me of—he created the book Hairstyles, where he documents 1,000 Nigerian hairdos. His intent was to preserve the history of West African hair trends. Why do you think it’s important to preserve black hairstyles?
Braiding is a sacred art in a lot of ways because it’s so rich in tradition—a lot of times we don’t really understand how much it means. I’ve always done hair and there were times when [braids] weren’t really as popular and I didn’t do them as much, but [now] all these white girls are coming out wearing cornrows. Someone asked me, “Do you do boxer braids?” and I was like, “You mean box braids? What the hell are boxer braids?” And she was like, “Those braids that Kim Kardashian wears.” Kim Kardashian just has straight-back braids and they aren’t even done that well, they looked pretty popped, and popped in Chicago is not a good thing. Because [braids] are coming out in pop culture and being exploited as a trend in the fashion scene, I think it’s important for me to honor them, before there’s a time when people don’t even remember them as a traditional black art. Plenty of cultures do their own braid styling, but African braiding has its own very long chapter in the history of braiding. I felt charged to make them tangible in a way where I could create an icon that honors my experience with braiding, my love for my clients and a celebration of black feminine beauty coiffeur in my own words, in my own images outside of magazines.
Speaking of Kim Kardashian, what’s your stance on white women wearing braids?
I understand that they are attractive because they are beautiful and different. They come from a culture that’s not their own. It’s new to them, it’s exciting, and everyone wants to be cutting edge and different. I understand the appeal to them in that way. But my gripe with cultural appropriation is when you do what white people have done for centuries: You come into a place that’s not yours and you take what’s theirs and you don’t honor the people, where it came from. It’s very empty, it’s totally vacuous when you take out the soul. That’s why trends are so fleeting, because they take an idea and use it until it’s used up and you’re tired of seeing it. I don’t like when people take anything that’s not really theirs without permission or blessings of where it comes from. Everything is not yours to take. There’s an artist, I forgot her name, she’s an Asian girl, she goes and immerses herself in different cultures and becomes a part of the culture and then she photographs parts of the transition. Cultural appropriation basically is her practice, but the way that she does it is respectful. She’s with the people, she lives with them for around a month or a couple of months, she gets to know everybody, she pays dues and becomes a member of the family, and then she’s able to share their culture. I honestly don’t think it will ever be done the right way [on a large scale] because fashion and beauty are billion-dollar industries and they are ever-evolving, so they are always going to be looking for something that’s new and cool, and new and cool is now going deeper and deeper into niche culture.
How do you want your braids to make people feel?
For AfroPunk last year, I just braided the crown of my head. It was pretty simple, and then I put some clip-ins in the back to make my hair fuller and a little longer. I felt like I was me.
You know, sometimes you wear your hair and you don’t really feel like yourself or it’s really not right. I felt really at home, I felt regal. And that’s something I like to capture with all the braids that I do freestyle. I always want it to be different, but I also want to show black people for the gods that they are. Not that just black people are gods, but I think everyone has a divine spark in them. I think that [divine spark is] not anywhere outside of yourself. Everyone has to start with the divine within and I really want to capture that with the braids that I do. I like to incorporate cowrie shells in my work as well, and they add to that idea of regality. Cowrie shells were used as currency at one point, so to me it represents creating my own value system. Money is valuable just because we believe in it; it really has no value outside of the paper and cotton fiber and ink that’s on top of it. So, this is just a way to declare my own value.