“My artwork is about learning and sharing. A community and a sense of being. When you have, you give, and when you learn, you teach,” Favour Jonathan tells me, sat on a green velvet stool (which she made) in her bedroom. The 21-year-old, Central Saint Martins fine art student and multidisciplinary artist never stays with one hairstyle for too long.
From the perspective of an African woman living in London, themes of home, identity and womanhood ripple throughout Favour’s work. She describes art as “everything that you live through and everything that you’ve been through.” Creativity isn’t something she practises, it's who she is.
Having spent years transitioning from having no hair to growing out her afro and experimenting with intricate braiding patterns, Favour decided to document this lifelong journey by taking a series of vibrant 'passport photo selfies', highlighting the versatility of afro-textured hair. It's a clever spin on the forward-facing, expressionless, fun-free images usually used for human identification.
Each photo, taken over the last five months, displays Favour wearing a different hairstyle (all self-styled) and channelling personas from Janet Jackson circa 1993 to a traditional woman of Favour’s homeland in Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria. She titled the project 'A Statement of Pride'.
"My hair is mine. I can do whatever I want with it, no one else is in control. It’s my power, my strength and my crown. I can wear it anywhere and in any way I want to", says Favour.
For many black women, like Favour and myself, our hair has never been “just hair”. The afro has been historically politicised, deemed unprofessional in work settings and unacceptable at school. Through lack of representation and accessible knowledge, many of us grow up chemically straightening it to achieve a more 'socially palatable' look.
Now, though, black women are ditching the harmful chemicals and unapologetically embracing the fullness of the ‘fro. A Google search of the “natural hair movement” brings up thousands of articles, YouTube videos and social media posts all relating to this global crusade, which has a feminist ethos, being pro-choice and encouraging full ownership of the self. Our hair is inextricably linked with our identity, making work like Favour’s both inspiring and relatable. "That happens naturally and it happens with other people’s work as well," says Favour. "I see some people’s work and think, 'Damn – are you talking about me?'"
Favour's bedroom walls are covered in her paintings of all textures and sizes. African fabrics are draped across dressers, photographs of Janet Jackson and Erykah Badu adorn door frames, plants sit neatly on most sturdy surfaces and vines hang from the ceiling. Her bedroom doubles up as a spot for regular “jellof and chill” hangouts; she's even used it as an exhibition space. Favour tells me that she has “a thing about plain walls” and prefers to present work in spaces that she can “make [her] own”, making her bedroom the perfect setting.
“The exhibition I had at my house was one of the biggest moments for me this year," she says. "I had just over 40 people here, it was an exhibition, but it was also like a house party. Everyone was taking pictures of the work like it was in an exhibition, but people were also sitting on the floor eating jellof, chit-chatting and shouting 'Pass the bottle opener!' I had to make sure it ran from 6pm to 9.30pm sharp. At 9.30 I said, 'Guys, the venue’s closed! Y’all gotta get out!’ Then we all went to the lake. We made fried chips in the house and took them all the way out. That’s how I like my work to be seen.”
“I want to see people’s reactions to my work, rather than just seeing it on the internet or on Instagram," she says. "It’s people’s expressions that give me satisfaction."
To Favour, identity is “the things that you carry with you. You identify with what’s in your heart.” With each new hairstyle, “you don’t necessarily become a new person, but you do take on a new persona, like an alter ego. It’s just being yourself and being able to do that transformation yourself is something that’s quite magical.”
What comes with each new persona could be anything from a change in style to a shift in the way you walk or carry yourself. “My outfits change based on what hairstyle I have. When you have a straight weave with a middle parting, you automatically walk around flipping your hair to the side,” Favour laughs, demonstrating the motion.
Alongside the natural hair movement, there’s been a wave of women making the decision to shave their heads completely, many saying they feel "even more feminine” without hair. Charnah Ellesse of the girlswillbeboys collective created a film “exploring modern ideas of femininity through women of different cultures who have shaved their heads.”
The common factor in such movements is a need to feel free from societal standards of beauty, and a search for an inner self that is represented by the exterior. By singing India Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair” or proudly saying “My hair is my crown”, we're empowering ourselves.
Of course, self-empowerment can’t exist without some degree of self-sufficiency, which is very important to Favour as an artist. “I feel like I have the power to change it whenever I want to, because I know how to do it. A lot of black women – we know how to do our hair just right and just how we like it. I’m not a fan of other people touching my hair.”
When you’re unable to do your hair by yourself, this part of your physical expression of identity is limited by whether you can find a stylist you trust, if you can afford to go to a stylist in the first place. It's often difficult to find stylists who really understand the characteristics of afro hair and are able to focus on its health, as well as achieve a particular style.
Doing your own hair is a journey of self-discovery, but can also be just a few hours of solo down time. "I love that I can put on the TV, braid my hair and chill by myself," Favour says. "I get some me time, and by the end of it, I have a new style."