Bio: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Yolanda Sangweni, the founder of AfriPOP!, is on a quest to craft the sweetest love letter ever written for Africa. She currently works as senior editor at Essence.com. Her work has appeared in Arise Magazine, Time Out New York & TRACE, where she was a features editor.
Posts by yolisang:
Nigerian-American Blogger Antonia Opiah, The Woman Behind ‘You Can Touch My Hair,’ on the Reaction to the ExhibitJune 14th, 2013
New York City’s Union Square was the site of the hotly-debated (on the Internets at least) You Can Touch My Hair exhibit this past weekend. Organized by Nigerian-American Antonia Opiah, the founder of Un’Ruly, the point was to start conversations around the fascination with black women’s hair; to lietrally invite strangers to touch real black women’s hair. Three models with different hair textures stood with signs reading “You Can Touch My Hair.”
Reaction to the exhibition was stealth, to say the least. On one hand were women who welcomed such an exhibit and the opportunity to openly talk about people’s curiosity with black women’s hair. On the other were women who balked at the idea of putting blaxk women on display. Was the exhibition recreating what Sarah Bartmaan had to experience?
We reached out to Antonia to find out more about her intentions with the exhibit, how she feels about the negative the backlash, and whether the politics of hair were ever a major issue in her own NIgerian upbringing.
AfriPOP!: What’s your takeaway from the exhibit?
Antonia Opiah: I was really pleased with it to be honest. I think what I expected to happen, happened. The event was called “You Can Touch My Hair” but that was an entry point to a discussion that I wanted to have and I figured that there’s no way that that kind of interaction can happen without there being some kind of conversation. My hope was that, yes we’ll let these people touch our models’ hair and our models will engage them. They’re also gonna have the opportunity to learn why people are curious about our hair or find it to be a novelty. That’s what I was looking to figure out.
I read a few article about the exhibit online. Some people rooted the issue in the history of the black and white relationship in America and white ownership. That’s a valid area to ground this in but I tend to play devil’s advocate because I get asked the question and a lot of the people that I answer to seem to be coming from a genuine place of curiosity. I don’t want to disregard that. If curiosity is in fact the case, why are you curious? Is it something that you’re not exposed to? We’re out here touting America as this place of freedom but are we really as intermingled as we think we are? And what are the consequences of us not being intermingled? To me, “can I touch your hair?” is an implication of that lack of interaction that’s not happening across different cultures.
Let’s go back to what made you want to do a public exhibit on this issue.
Two reasons: the first being that I’ve been asked that question a lot in my life and I know the weight that it holds. I know that I’ve felt offended by it so I wanted to see if we can draw a parallel between a literal display and the question. A lot of people saw that parallel. So everyone that got angry about it, they saw that parallel, but the people I wanted to illustrate that parallel to were the people that were “curious.” The second reason was I know in my life any time that I’ve grated my teeth and engaged in a conversation with someone about my hair, I know that I’ve always come out of it feeling really good about myself because I enjoy talking about my hair. My hair is something that I’m proud of and something that I think is beautiful . I suspected that by having this platform to have that kind of interaction, those types of positive conversations could come out of it.
Were you surprised by the people who showed up to say, “You cannot touch my hair”?
I was surprised at the overall negative backlash. I didn’t see it coming because maybe I’m naïve. To me, I saw this as a kumbaya moment and I knew my intent. But everyone else didn’t know my intent, which was that this was less about touching, and more about having a conversation. People who were on the outside looking in just saw the signs. They just saw the images on Instagram and they saw the hashtag and reacted to that. The images they saw drew too much of a parallel between a certain part of our black history that’s pretty disturbing. I don’t blame them for their reaction; I just didn’t anticipate. I did anticipate a certain level of discomfort but I thought that would come from the people who actually were at the exhibit. The same things that people are saying now, about how the exhibit puts you on display and that you shouldn’t have to explain anything about who you are—these are all things I’ve said to myself. Over the past two years I was inadvertently made the black hair ambassador at work because I change my hair so often. And I didn’t necessarily feel like explaining why my hair is a fro this week when I had a different style last week. It’s intense to walk into a room where everyone’s gawking at you and saying things about your hair. And so, the sentiment that was expressed, is a sentiment that I’ve expressed so I’m not surprised to hear it.
Where does this become a race issue? It feels like the conversation is framed in such a way that it’s only white people that ever ask to touch black women’s hair?
The challenge of You Can Touch My Hair was for those people who have put other people on the spotlight with their curiosity. What actually ended up happening, which probably ends up happening in real life, is that more black women were the ones doing the touching and asking the questions. I think what that indicates is that is kind of what I feel which is that black hair is special. I think Michaela Angela Davis said it best when she said, “Black hair is magic.” We can do all kinds of things with it. The reason my site and thousands of other sites exist is because there are so many discussions to be had around black hair. There’s so much to learn about black hair, which is why so many people, even black women, have a lot of questions about it. That’s something that we have to acknowledge across the board.
Why only have black models out there? To broaden it couldn’t there have been women of other races? We wear weaves made from Indian hair. Obviously we’re intrigued by that hair.
Because I know the black experience and what I was trying to do was recreate an encounter that I have every day; that I know other women have every day. Everyone was mad that this exhibit, but it goes on every time that question is asked. I know what the question means to black women. And I know that for us, hair is not just hair. It has a lot of implications and history even though it’s a superficial element of our being.
Tell me about growing up in a Nigerian household and the issue of hair.
It wasn’t talked about but it was something that was always done. My mom used to plait my hair into really intricate styles. I wasn’t even aware that that was something not normal until I came to America. I think I was like 9 years old and someone was like, ‘Oh, let me look at your hair. Let me see the patters.’ Doing our hair was a part of our culture—we didn’t really think about it. We moved around a lot and I think my awareness of my hair was dependent on where I was. I remember we were in boarding school in Switzerland and my hair was in plaits. They get old after a while so I took them out and I think somehow my hair was combed up and one of the girls in the dorm came out and looked at my hair and started laughing. She pulled me out for everyone to see. We were literally put on display, but I think I was too young for that to really have an effect on me. I remember feeling different, that’s for sure.
Have you always loved your hair?
Yes, certainly. I’ve been natural for a few years now and with this natural hair renaissance I want to know my hair more. I grew up with certain misconceptions about my hair and I suspect that other women did too. I grew up with my hair being relaxed all the time so now this natural hair is something new to me—I have to research it, I even watch Youtube videos. I feel like I’m starting a new relationship with it which is weird because it’s something that grows out of my head and it shouldn’t be new, but it is because of the larger history of black people in America and what we’ve been told about what’s good and what’s bad.
So what next?
I’m happy with the discussion that happened. I would have liked to see more non-blacks participate because what ended up happening is that it got so reactionary especially to the imagery and the notion of it as a petting zoo. People who were there got to understand why this is such a hot topic, but I would have liked for more non-blacks to participate.
As in the people coming to touch the hair?
Yeah. Just even to listen. You can see that in videos that are coming out of the event—there was just more talking than there was touching. One of the protestors said this conversation has nothing to do with them. That’s one of the statements I disagree with. The fact that I am being asked this question and that the question does put people on display is a result of people not knowing the weight of that question.
Will there be more “You Can Touch My Hair” exhibits?
We’ve gotten a lot of requests surprisingly, despite all the backlash, with people asking us to bring it to their town. I think what will happen next will be an online discussion. Even though the people that were against the event were the most vocal, there are people who don’t mind people touching their hair or having that conversation. I’d like to put those people in a forum together and further talk about this discussion. We’re also going to be putting together a film conveying what we learned, what we explored, and the conversations that we had at the event—the good and the bad.
Label: Design of a Diaspora
Locale: Toronto, by way of Ghana
“Fashion has always been something that intrigued me because it was able to transcend borders and negate discrimination,” says Toronto-based designer Miss Yeboah. “I wanted to create a clothing line that highlighted the unique prints of West Africa because the world was missing out on something amazing!”
Oh yeah? We wanted to find out more about Miss Yeboah’s new clothing line:
How did the concept for Design of a Diaspora come about?
It was tedious for the first few months trying to come up with a name, image and goal for the brand, but one day the name literally just came to me. The word Diaspora encompasses every displaced African individual outside of Africa, and what I believe makes us distinct are our fabrics, our “design’ if you will; that’s the one thing that connects and allows the world to see one’s history whether you live in north America, Asia, Africa, South America, Europe etc. Design of a Diaspora, as a coined name just made sense from that point on! We are who we are, and this is what makes us who we are.
What, in your opinion, is the future of African fashion?
I believe African fashion IS the future, but I also believe it has been the past and is the present. So many unforgettable, notable, beautiful influences have derived from African History/Fashion that it’s hard to overlook its nuanced influence over western culture and style. I believe African fashion will further ascend into the fashion buy viagra canada world and many power house names will develop to rival some of the top giants we see in magazines today. Design of a Diaspora is not simply a clothing line; it’s a cultural experience. So for other designers to be able to put their stamp on the map makes me cheerful, because that’s one more person introducing the world to something great.
Who are some of your favorite African designers?
My one space of motivation and inspiration came from Project Runway’s season 5 contestant Korto Momolu. Although her African print influences were subtle and sporadic, I was more so motivated by her passion, drive and ability to get as far as she did, as she was bringing something brand new to the atmosphere. From her experience I drew the ability to refocus myself and go for what I’d been longing to do.
The informative, and hilarious, new web series African Time has recently caught our attention. Created by the Waave + Dada collective, the series aims to highlight the experiences of Africans in America by examining issues like what
it really means to “look buy generic viagra African,” how Africans approach discipline and the difference between parenting in America and Africa. Check out episod
es 1-3 here, and watch more over on You Cube (at least that's what my African mom calls it—LOL).
Episode 1: What Does it Mean to Look Africa?
Episode 2: Discipline
Episode 3: Parenting
Let us know what you thought of African Time
As usual we’re wrapping our week in a soundtrack of the best tunes from the diaspora. Check out the 5 tunes we can’t get enough of this week from Zimbabwe via Norway,
Kenya and the UK. Listen in.
Monoswezi (Zimbabwe via Norway) “Hon
Kayode Kuti (Nigeria) “Na Me Sabi”
Bantu Crew (Germany/ Nigeria) “Lagos Jump”
Bibi Tanga & The Selenites (France/Central African Republic) “En slip, Chaussettes”
Adina Thembi (Ghana) “Let Me Go”
What’s on your playlist this week?
We’re wrapping our week in a soundtrack of the best tunes from the diaspora. Check out the 5 tunes we can’t get enough of this week, from Kenya to Martinique and London:
Laura Mvula “Like the Morning Dew” (London)
Freshly Ground “Chain Gang” (South Africa)
Sara Mitaru feat. Bez “Keep Me (from You) (Kenya/Nigeria)
Bongeziwe Mabandla “Phupha Lam” (South Africa)
Esy Kennenga “Mwen Oblige” (Martinique)
What’s on your playlist this
Can we talk about how much we love Sudanese model Ajak Deng? She’s one of the most beautiful, and versatile, models in the game at the moment.
Deng was recentl photographer Julia Noni’s for a futuristic shoot for the French publication Obsession Magazine. Deng sports Fall looks from Balmain, Chanel, Prada and Balenciaga and more. Take a look:
We recently caught a glimpse of visual artist Namsa Leuba’s work in the Fashion issue of New York Magazine. Upon further inspection, it turns out this recent art and design graduate has an beautiful body of work that is inspired by both her own multicultural identity and the spiritual, ritual and ceremonial practices of her mother’s native, Guinea (her father is Swiss). Namsa is also a brilliant fashion photographer, evident in her New York Mag shoot called The African Queens.
“Each of the women in these images represent African statuettes, but using a high-fashion aesthetic,” she told New York.
“The wig draped on top of the stump — that represents bad spirits,” says Leuba.
Stylish, natural, futuristic, experimental. Sounds like quite the hodgepodge. But it's the best way to describe the crowd at Weeksville Heritage Center (Brooklyn) for South African producer Spoek Mathambo's performance this past weekend. Drawing an eclectic crowd, Mathambo'
;s set was high-energy and easily transitioned from hip-house to hip hop and rock. Also on hand was legendary (yeah, we said it) singer, Georgia Anne Muldrow featuring Dudley Perkins.
Here's a look at the sights and sounds.
photos by Lenyon Whitaker
Rwandan Electro Pop Singer Iyadede returns with a beatbox-backed new single called “The L
ast Time.” Dede not only sings on the track, she produced it and illustrated it too! Now do you believe why she's our Afri-muse?
It's been a minute since we updated our “5 Things” list, but with all this news bubbling on all things African, we thought of no better time to resurrect our morning list of things you should know right now.
African Fashion Week New York is launching this week in the Big Apple from July 12 – 14. Click here for more info on the designers, show times and more.
Ever wonder what an Afrigasm is? We sure did. Explains Maria Hangeveld: “The experience of the Afrigasm is limited to a particular group. We tend to be white Euro-Americans and are drawn to Sub Saharan Africa by an urge to explore and to do good, or by a more existential desire for an encounter with radical difference.” Sound familiar? Read more of Maria's experience over at Africa Is a Coun
There's no doubt that Nigeria is ruling the pack when it comes to music right now. With acts like D'Banj, Nneka, and Asa (among others) crossing over to international markets, all eyes are what the next Naija act can accomplish. With that said, Jaguda has compiled a thorough list of 25 acts to watch from Naija.
Ghanaian rapid rhymer and Konvict signee Sarkodie has teamed up with UK-born Ghanaian singer, Raquel (pictured above), for a sweet summer anthem called “Sweetio.” Check it:
pic via wynter gordon
American songstress Wynter Gordon has written for Mary J. Blige and lent her vocals to the likes of J.Cole and Flo Rida. Ahead of the release of her EP, Human Condition (out July 9), Wynter has released the track 'Stimela,” largely inspired by Hugh Maskekela's song of the same na
me. Check it out and let us know what you think:
And the original: