Who among us has not experienced “a bad hair day” contributing to a momentary phase of dissatisfaction?
The expression hints at the importance of hair in our self-image and sense of well-being, besides a deeper symbolism reaching far into the past. A symbol of seduction, rebellion and belonging, hair is often fetishized and feared.
Hair plays a huge part in human personality — subject to many ways of styling and marking relative beauty, while also being a symbol of loss and time that passes, leading to death.
“Dyed, curled, slicked, combed, plaited or loose — hair can be arranged in hundreds of different ways, shaped into thousands of different coiffures, thus transforming the very structure of a skull,” explained Stephen Martin, the director of the museum of primary arts in Paris, at the opening of the “Cheveux Chéris” ( Beloved Hair ) exhibition at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris. Director of the Heritage and Collections Department at the museum, Yves Le Fur, is the curator of this fascinating exhibition, with more than 280 objects on display offering a unique and poetic vision of the universal theme which has been the centre of human attention for thousands of years. The show takes a look at the perception of hair in cultures around the world.
At the junction of anthropology, history of art, both ancient and contemporary, together with fashion and manners, the exhibition focuses on individual issues of intimacy and sociability through the universal theme of hair.
Not only photographs but also short films, sculptures and paintings, coiffes, ornaments, weapons, masks and trophies catch the visitor’s attention in the show, which runs until next July and is divided into three parts.
The first section is made up of a selection of works of art generously lent by several French museums, including the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Petit Palais, the Palace of Versailles and Nantes Museum of fine Arts.
Here, visitors find, for example, black bronze busts of non-European peoples contrasting with white marble busts — mostly of European nobility — all with varying forms of hairstyles.
A stunning human-size stone 18th century statue of the Virgin Mary from Normandy, France with waves of flowing hair down to her ankles captures the eye.
These artistic productions, which are shown in a new light, contrast with the artefacts from the Musée du Quai Branly collections, in a multifaceted capillary profusion, assembled in the second and third sections of the exhibition.
Short films of non-European rituals involving hair and also of modern extravagant styles in movies or fashion shows often prove to be amusing or riveting. Here we see a young Burmese nun having her hair shaved off.
The row of African hairstyles photographed often serves as inspiration for modern styles adorning mannequins in contemporary fashion like the recent couture shows in Paris.
Many black and white photos are of artistic inspiration like the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp creation: the back-view of a pipe-smoking male portrayed with a Star of David shaved on closely cropped hair.
Or, more disturbing, famed Japanese photographer Araki’s portrait of a naked woman with hair trailing all over her; uncannily snake-like, sending a shiver down one’s back.
Famous French author Colette is depicted seated at the age of fifteen with long braids reaching to her ankles while female film stars, such as Brigitte Bardot or Sophie Loren, are portrayed in color flaunting their hair.
More poignant for the observer are the eight lockets of hair. One display showed hair painstakingly braided into a little star-shape, enclosed in a brooch bordered by pearls or another, a short blonde braid snipped off and bound by a pale silk ribbon in an oval frame.
Further on visitors can examine a hat made of vegetable fibers, shells and human hair woven in a very sophisticated manner and originating from a Dutch museum collection from 19th century Indonesia. Similar hats were used in rituals particularly those involving newly born babies.
Otherwise two wooden shields from Toraja in Sulawesi are on display. They are partially decorated with human hair supposed to protect the wearer from being beheaded.
Judging from the hard blade of the Dayak’s sword on show, opponents should be on their guard when a warrior appears wielding one of these. This particular specimen is decorated by 208 human hairs and a stylised human head.
Two shrunken heads with hair from Papua are also present.
Batons and other artefacts from Asia, Africa and South America decorated by hair fill many showcases, where some are also skilfully mixed with vivid bird feathers.
A death cape from Peru, mainly made up of exotic and colourful bird-feathers is completed by human hair. Other shrunken heads are shown from other parts of world besides Indonesia, like the Pacific islands or Africa.
The sight of the last exhibition might make one shudder despite the fact that it is delicately covered by sheet-gold. It is the desiccated head of an Egyptian mummy.
Noted Indonesian interior architect Jaya Ibrahim, who was on his first visit to the museum, gasped while remarking, “Not even the sheet gold disguises the fact that the well-preserved head has remnants of hair that has lasted over so many centuries.”
— Photos courtesy of Musée du Quai Branly