Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Hair & Contemporary Fibre Art

Paula Santiago MOANBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Hair and Contemporary Fibre Art

The use of hair in fibre art dates back to the Victorian tradition of fashioning jewellery, lockets and small wreaths from human hair. In the second half of the 19th century the hobby was extremely popular, capturing a sense of flowery beauty in memento-like objects. Emily Bates writes in Textiles An Afterthought? ‘Throughout my research into rituals and religion, I’ve come across various examples where hair is again reduced down to your identity. This is particularly evident in 19th-century memorial jewellery. Locks of hair from family members or loved ones were meticulously crafted into exquisite pieces of jewellery. Hair is a very intimate material’.

Tim Porges in Anne Wilson writes: ‘hair becomes a paradigm for all our discoveries of inattention; for remembering. There is an obvious logic to the Victorian lockets with twists of hair in them, a logic that extends form this daily experience of forgetting and remembering.’ Rob Silberman in his introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition “Hair Stories”, notes that weaving hair was a fashionable practice from the mid-19th century until shortly after 1900. ‘Hair-woven earrings, brooches and even floral wreath testify to Victorian tastes in mementos and hobbies.’

Today the use of hair in fibre art commands a meaning far removed from the Victorian ideals of remembrance and beauty. Distanced from the sentimental wreaths and lockets the Victorians fashioned, contemporary artists use hair to evoke uneasy associations with history and about the body. Allusions to violated and transgressed bodies are made through the presence of hair in conspicuous absence of its body. Today’s sense is that the body form which the hair has been harvested is somehow under siege. What has brought about this drift in what we associate with hair and what does it say about the current preoccupations of our times?

Sally Alatalo and Anne Wilson’s Imperfect Sutures is an artist’s book comprised of a poem illustrated in black and white. The poem reads: ‘Mend the quiet rupture carefully – with the intent of a surgeon repairing – the severed trachea of her own child. – Don’t look up once to see or think about – the crowds closing in, like ambulance chasers hoping to get a glimpse at what you’re up to. – Tend the quiet rupture patiently, insistently. – No one will see the subversive mend – the thread clipped meticulously – from her luxuriant head.’ The authors appropriate the domestic and nurturing associations of stitch and hair, overturning nostalgia with a disturbing narrative of violation and anxiety. Here, as with many other contemporary artists, there is an underlying sense that hair is something gathered in grief or loss rather than given with joy. Its collection becomes an impropriety born of sorrow that motions towards other unspoken violations of the body and mind.

Mexican artist Paula Santiago’s early works used her own hair and that of her grandmother and friends in place of embroidery floss. She has a history of harvesting materials from her own body to incorporate into her artwork. Bloodstains that appear in many of her works in the Moan series are made from her own blood. In the catalogue for Santiago’s first exhibition at the Iturralde Gallery in Los Angeles, Laurel Reuter writes: ‘Absence was palpable. It was as if everyone who ever mattered had gone away a long time ago leaving an emptied earth.’ Knitted and stitched hair around many of the edges and inside cavities of the sculptures heightened this sense of desertion. The garments are small in size, not tiny like precious infant clothing but just small enough for a young child to wear. The paper mesh surfaces are fragile and insubstantial, unable to offer protection in weather or illness. Instead they record patterns of hair that are unnatural to both the textile and the skin. Among the knitted and sewn hairs are bloodstains; not gruesome but seeping, a dried-in record of violence.

Violence and loss are also evident in Beth Barron’s Holocaust Hankie series. Working with cloth handkerchiefs inherited from a victim of Auschwitz, Barron embroiders these with floss, hair, beads and objects, such as small bones and Band-Aids. The handkerchief, once a sign of cleanliness and thoughtful top-pocket dressing, is transformed through embellishment into a memorial. The presence of hair as embroidery thread necessitates its absence from the body and manages to evoke nothing pleasant or comforting. In Barron’s case, the title of the series confirms these feelings. By making the provenance of the handkerchiefs known to the viewer, the hair they incorporate symbolises the hair that fell from shaven heads of victims in the concentration camps, as well as hair shed under stress and starvation

Erica Spitzer Rasmussen’s Dirty Little Secret plays on the associations we all share with hair; a substance that is plucked, shaven, trimmed, coloured, made fluffier and more flamboyant if it grows on the head, scrupulously removed by mechanical or chemical means if it appears in the wrong place. Removing hair from one’s body can be a private matter. Dirty Little Secret evolved from Rasmussen’s research into the depilatory methods of the 1920s where, for a time, women used X-rays to remove unwanted hair. The effect of this aggressive treatment was terrible health problems. Displayed in the garment/skin of Dirty Little Secret are cysts and cancerous growth, ringed, one the ground with the fallen hair of the wearer. The circle of fallen hair refers to both the unwanted follicles which were removed by X-ray treatment and, in a contemporary sense, the cancer treatments of today, which cause hair loss. The light subject of beauty becomes infused with the grotesque and macabre.

Diane Katsiaficas’ use of hair for the Shearing installations draws from the mythical stories of Berenice and Absalom. Both involve hair: Berenice was an Egyptian princess who sacrificed her hair to save her husband; Absalom died when his hair trapped him in tree branches. As Katsiaficas explains: ‘Mythical narratives allow us to explain and dignify the ordinary’. But here again, hair represents more than dignity; it is also associated with loss and sacrifice. In works such as the Lead series, two apparently incongruous materials, metal and hair, combine to evoke a sense of burden or lack of progression within the self. Progress and growth may actually be the ways in which hair manages to evoke discomfort. Silent and beyond our control it can, as Tim Porges notes, betray embarrassing signs of inattention, but is also evokes events, such as death, that are largely unforeseen.

Hattie Gordon in Anne Wilson asks, ‘Does hair without a body provoke a confrontation with human mortality, with the mortality of seamlessness? The hair collected for Victorian lockets occurred during an epoch of great commitment to empirical knowledge. The period brims with samples of taxidermy and specimens in formaldehyde, plucked from their origins for study and preservation. This may have some influence on the differing notion of hair which fibre art presents today. Contemporary notions of hygiene dispose and shun everything that falls from the body. All manner of tissue and pairings are made invisible, slipped into the medical dustbin or scrubbed from the surface of the health spa, while patients lay – at great expense – with eyes gently covered in lavender-soaked blindfolds. Even computer viruses, the name coined from medicine, wreak a havoc that remains distinctly sanitised compared to the sneezing and coughing of a body with flu. Perhaps we know our bodies differently today than in the past. Perhaps this distance allows hair to take on the uncanny and project from contemporary fibre art a disquieting and unfamiliar sense. The growth and shedding of hair has come to symbolise the natural and unstoppable passage of time, a reality the generation of “baby-boomers” seems increasingly reluctant to accept.

Craft Arts International (No. 57, 2003: 113-115)