There are a lot of places to find some damn good-looking braids. You can start in your local salon, hit up Pinterest, or even find the style on the red carpet. But until recently, you were probably pretty unlikely to find them on museum walls. Chicago-based artist Shani Crowe is looking to change that. As she states in the notes for her photography exhibit, "Braids," which is on display at MoCADA (the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts) in Brooklyn through July, braiding is universal — but it strikes a particularly intimate chord with African-American women. That's to whom she's dedicated this series.
The collection of images highlights insanely detailed and intricate braided 'dos, which Crowe created after years and years of practice. "As a child, I would get my hair braided every two weeks by one of my aunts or an older cousin," she tells us. "I picked up the skill from watching my relatives braid, and practicing on dolls. When I was around 11, and my aunts couldn’t execute the designs I wanted, I began braiding [on] my own. I was a walking advertisement for myself, and ended up attracting clientele."
In addition to plaiting, Crowe also makes ink illustrations, collages, plush items, and experimental videos. But until recently, she made it a point to keep her cosmetic and artistic endeavors separate, the former being something of which she grew to be ashamed. "I realized that I had let societal misgivings about my culture mar my own perspective of its validity as an art form," Crowe reflects. "That’s why this project is important. It's an unapologetic assertion of my pride in my braid art, my culture, and my African ancestry."
Who could ignore the Black-girl magic that radiates from every work in the 10-piece exhibit? This sort of representation is important to Crowe, and so is the underlying message of finding that magic within yourself. "Self-love is important for every person, especially women, and especially Black women because oppressed people suffer the systemic, cyclical effects of that oppression," she says. "As long as you look for truth, contentment, or love outside of yourself, you may never find them. That's not to say you can't receive these things from other sources, but life is full of changes and you must be motivated, autonomously, from the inside."
As for all the recent frustration surrounding the cultural appropriation of traditionally Black braided hairstyles, she understands: "It’s strange when the source of your shame adopts the qualities you were shamed for, receives praise for these qualities, and is heralded as a trendsetter. Add the mistrust from centuries of pillaging and displacing millions of people from their native lands. If you have learned from experience to be wary of trusting someone, you are much less inclined to trust them with something as sacred as your culture."
But she's also quick to say she's grown weary of the conversation — simply because you feed things that you give energy to. "I’ve learned that spending efforts to change someone’s opinion is often mute, as that person has to choose to change their minds or see new perspectives when they’re ready," she says. "The only person I control is me, and I choose to create and photograph beautiful braids to honor Black women and hopefully foster connectivity and Black unity."
Ahead, check out a selection of Crowe's exquisite creations.