Last weekend I Managed to catch the exhibition Origins of the Afro comb at the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge on its last day. I had found out about it a couple of weeks back but had been unable to go due to childcare issues. My husband was traveling, I was alone with the kids and so could not go. Thankfully he came back in time and I was able to go on the last day of the exhibition. I am glad I made time for it, although I had lots of reading to do for school.
I must say that, as I entered the first exhibition gallery and found myself in ancient Egypt, I prepared for disappointment, not because I have anything against Egypt, but because I feared it would stop there as it often happens. But I was reassured in the next room, as coverage of the continent extended even beyond West Africa, another usual suspect, including countries like DRC, Zambia and Tanzania. Even Angola and Mozambique, which rarely make it, were covered. That was a treat. I guess it is a human fault to want to see ourselves reflected in the world we live in. As an Angolan, who seldom finds herself represented in anything, I was quite satisfied. The Diaspora and Caribbean were also represented, particularly in the more modern parts of the exhibition.
This was, as the Brits say, a lovely exhibition. I experienced it from the point of view of someone telling their own story as opposed to the more familiar feeling I get, in anything about africa, of a people’s story being told by others. The amount and variety of combs exhibited in terms of size, shape, material used and artistic craftsmanship was quite impressive. There were other items as well, from photos to videos, headdresses and other styling tools.
I loved seeing the ancient side by side with the old and the new. The almost toothless carbon dated Afro comb next to the plastic, made in china black power fist one. I love that it is up with the times including some pictures and videos clearly pertaining to the era of the natural hair movement amid some older ones. I also appreciated that the organizers chose to exhibit some old anthropological pictures, which are in our times considered inappropriate because of how they depict African people, being careful to explain why they chose to do so. Where items on display were pillaged, it was also indicated (though the wording was perhaps more diplomatic than mine).
My favorite items were the two sets of wooden barber shop signs. They evoked for me in a very authentic way, modern African street culture. I was transported to the hot and dusty streets of Luanda with its hustlers, chaotic traffic and general buzz. It was warming to see old models of the Afro comb I had forgotten about and to remember particular scenes of getting my hair done, some more pleasant than others. When I came to the hot comb and pressing iron section, I got the chills. I didn’t know I was that terrified of those instruments. But they really did make my insides recoil in horror. They looked to me like instruments of torture. A bit of an exaggeration, I know, but that’s how I felt looking at them.
I also learned something new. I did not know about the design, patenting and manufacturing of combs for African hair which developed in parallel with the civil rights and black power movements. It made me think of the current developments in the natural hair product industry, which reminded me of the power that we all have as people to influence markets that deliver what we want and need, rather than buying whatever is thrown at us. If only we used that power more, the world would be a different place.
Last but not least, seeing a picture of Nina Simone with her afro towards the end made me want to grow my hair again. I think it is time.