The reason terms like "boxer braids" and "inside-out plaits" are so offensive is because they diminish the real hairstyles' rich history. What's more, the "tastemakers" who wear them are often credited for putting those styles on the map, when the braids actually have much deeper roots that are planted in Africa. And photographer Medina Dugger doesn't want you to forget that.
Her latest series, Chroma: An Ode to J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere, celebrates the traditional styles we love, while giving its viewers an important history lesson. "Last year I was at a talk during LagosPhoto Festival, where Nigerian-born photographer Ike Ude referred to fashion and style as our ‘cultural skin.' This concept really struck me," Dugger tells Refinery29. "In this increasingly connected world of information sharing, cultural traditions can be diluted and lost."
Dugger's biggest inspiration for the project was the work of the late J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, who documented over 1,000 traditional Nigerian hairstyles that were worn before colonial rule introduced rigid western ideals of beauty. "His work represents much more than style; it serves as a record of an important part of Nigeria’s history," Dugger says.
Dugger worked with Nigerian hairstylist Ijeoma Christopher who was able to tell her the names of each hairstyle and the history behind why or when a woman would wear a particular look, she says. She also made sure to consult with each model on the color and design, aiming for styles they’d likely wear beyond the shoot.
In creating this striking series, Dugger hopes her images serve as a celebration — and an education. "Black women’s hair remains a political topic around the world, one that many continue to be ignorant, insensitive, and offensive about," Dugger says. "The western-centric gaze is pervasive, oppressive and institutionalized, both overtly and subliminally. Chroma aims to celebrate the beauty of Nigerian hair design."
Check out her captivating images — and the stories behind them — ahead.
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"This hairstyle was historically popular among Yoruba Nigerians," Dugger describes. "Braids run from the forehead, sides, and back of the head to the crown of the head. Queens used to wear this style often."
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"Nigerian hair styling is a very personal process that has historical and cultural roots that continue to influence today’s generation. In childhood, the youth often wear styles unique to their tribe to school during ‘cultural day.' Traditional hairstyles are also worn to cultural dances, carnivals, and for special events such as weddings," says Dugger.
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"The Yoruba liked this style because it was faster to do than cornrows and was said to improve the hair texture," Dugger explains. "Hair threading straightens the hair and creates the illusion that it's longer."
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"Some of the styles, such as ‘Silver Calabar,' refer to the manner in which the hair is [sectioned] on the woman’s head," she says. "The name Calabar is derived from the city of Calabar in Nigeria, indicating a geographical area where this style is common."
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"Today, I believe there is a loosening of the ‘rules’ — at least in Lagos — when it comes to the traditional reasons for wearing particular styles," says Dugger. "All the models in this series were from Nigeria. During the process, they shared many stories about styles they’d worn at different times in their lives."
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The traditional Beri Beri style gets a modern twist with pastel blue color and decorative beads. You can see J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere's original photograph of the style here.
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