I caught up with filmmaker and photographer Numa Perrier to talk about her installation The Last Weave showing this Saturday at The Ground Floor Gallery. In our interview she discusses the origin of this work, violence against weaves, and growing up with Black hair and a White mom.
So, The Last Weave?
The Last Weave. You like that?
I love it.
It's like the last supper...for my weave. It's religious. It's sanctimonious. No, The Last Weave was a very spontaneous thing that I did. I was at Sundance Film Festival and I had...well I had a horrible thing happen to my hair.
No, prior to Sundance. When I was pregnant my hair started growing incredibly. You know when you're pregnant, your hair is awesome...
And it gets that shine.
It had the shine and the bounce. It had become very lustrous and big. Then I did something stupid. I colored my hair and my hair started falling out. My hair that had grown so long and so beautiful just started falling out.
I've always had this love hate relationship with longer hair versus shorter hair. I really love my hair short, but I also really love the pride and feeling of when it gets long. So it's always a thing, right? Your hair can look really awesome short, but you want to prove to people that your hair is not short because it can't grow. It's just this thing with Black women, that if your hair can't grow, you're less feminine, you're not as much of a woman, you're ugly. Whatever!
So Sundance was coming and I was like, "I'm gonna put a weave in." It was long enough to put under a weave and go to the festival and feel like, "I'm gonna look good everyday because my hair is gonna be basically done." You get a weave and you wake up and you woke up like this. You're good.
Then Dennis and I went to see a film called Through a Lens Darkly.
Dennis is your partner in life and work.
Yes, and we watched this documentary about Black photographers coming up through the sixties. It was really remarkable the way they did that film. They didn't just talk about photographers you may not have known, that was one component of the film, but it was really about the imaging of Black people. From the first image of a Black person ever and how that image has shaped us and how that image has been manipulated. And how Black people took that image back and have had it taken away again. And it's been this tug of war for centuries. Well, these photographers would take self portraits and articulate that tug of war.
So while I was watching, I noticed the hair politics, because you're seeing their hair so raw and natural and designed the way they wanted it designed. I was having all kind of epiphanies watching this film. And I just wanted to rip that weave out of my head at that moment. And they weren't even talking about hair. The focus of the film was not hair. This film was just images of us. And I started feeling horrible about my own image that I had created of myself. Feeling like I had to come to Sundance looking a certain way, you know?
I've always had this internal struggle. I've always wanted to feel natural and feel beautiful without all of the accoutrement. So we went back to our hotel and I just started taking it out. Seriously, I had gotten my hair done the night before. So this weave lasted 24 hours - my shortest weave ever. I knew I wanted to document this experience. I wanted to photograph me putting this weave to bed. I had to get Dennis to help me cut it out. I said to him, "Please don't cut my own hair, just cut the string." So he was in there like a surgeon trying to extract this weave from my hair. And I documented the entire experience!
So this was your last weave, do you remember your first?
I had been introduced to weaves as a teenager when I met the Black side of my family.
What do you mean by the Black side?
I was adopted. My mother was White and my father was Black. His family lived in South Carolina and we lived in California until I was a teenager. When we moved to South Carolina, I met all of my dad's family. They taught me about weaves, perms, and how to get my hair laid. When they saw me they were like, "Oh, Lord! Someone save this child from her White mother!" So then that is when I started wearing weaves. They permed me. They put that bond in. And I was like, "Wow, I look like a doll!" I had all of this hair and I loved it. So I thought this was the way to be beautiful.
But when I went to school people were like, "That's not your hair! We're gonna rip it out!" There was a lot of aggression about what was my hair and what wasn't my hair. People would test your hair. They would pull on your hair to see if it was gonna come out. So you just hoped that glue was gonna hold because it was violent back in the '90's.
I don't think it's that way now.
How do the hair politics of yesterday inform your perspective now?
Hair politics have been a part of my life since I was a kid. Being adopted and having a White mom, the things she would say to me about my hair, I didn't understand them in a greater political context at the time, but looking back I'm like, "Wow, she really said those things to me."
What kinds of things?
"Ooh girl, your hair is so thick!" Like that was a bad thing. She would buy thinning shears and try to thin my hair. You can't make someone's hair thinner by cutting it! It's still going to be thick. Then she would send me to people and say, "I just don't know what to do with this child's hair." And they didn't know what to do either because she would take me to other White people. So I just ended up having short hair.
Then when the whole Jheri Curl thing came out, she sent me to my first Black hair salon. The hairdresser was trying to comb my hair and I was in tears. It was absolute torture and she was blaming me for it, saying "Girl, you need to comb your hair!" I think that was the first time I was traumatized - at a Black hair salon.
Have you ever had a conversation with your mother, as an adult, about these hair experiences?
No. She passed away when I was 19. That's one of the saddest things about not having her now, I'm not able to have those talks that I feel would be so meaningful for the both of us. Maybe I should imagine those conversations as an art project.
Come witness Numa Perrier and all of her imaginings
@ The Ground Floor Gallery
Woman. Hair. Power.