Written by: Misa Yamaoka
Sometimes visual language is easier to understand than my thoughts. When trying to contextualize past decisions I've made, I often look to art. It helps me organize my emotions and brings light to external factors that subconsciously play a role in the way I rationalize.
This summer, I dyed my hair for the first time. After sitting in a chair for 4 hours, I left the salon with caramel highlights and a lighter wallet. Not completely satisfied with the result and upset that I had spent so much time and money on a process that now felt dis-genuine to my natural self, I began to question how much my identity and self-confidence were connected to hair. Did this somewhat rash decision speak to a greater story of my past experiences trying to understand how to care for my curls and embrace them.
While searching for answers, I came across artist Yuni Kim Lang and her exhibition Comfort Hair.
(Yuni Kim Lang, Hair Landscape III, 2013)
Comfort Hair, made from polypropylene rope, was a live sculptural series. An ode to gache wigs worn by Korean high society as a symbol for beauty, wealth, and health, Lang's exhibition challenged viewers to consider today's social norms of beauty, their own cultural identity, and their relationship with hair. In the artist's words, hair is "powerful and beautiful yet so burdensome and heavy. It is this intense, overwhelming, yet so satisfying relationship with our hair that makes us obsess over it."
Being born in Korea, raised in China, and now living in the USA, Lang had struggled to find her "essence of being." These sculptural wigs acted as a tool in helping to discover and confront her questions surrounding identity. As the artist put on and took off the wig, she compared it to shedding a layer of skin, as a snake would. The artwork's performance element represents the space Lang created to grapple with these questions and further develop.
Coming from a mixed background, my Father being Japanese and my Mother, Mexican and German, I have never fit into the beauty industry's standard mould. Though seemingly "Asian" looking, I have also been gifted with a mane of unruly, frizzy, and tangle-prone head of hair.
Subject to unsolicited commentary at a young age:
"Wow, I love your hair straight so much more."
"Your hair looks kind of frizzy"
"It's like one big puffball."
And craving social acceptance, I spent most of secondary school straitening it or wearing braids.
Looking past my personal experiences, the war on curly/natural hair has a rich history of cultural oppression. We see this in colonial arts reference to natural hair as "primitive," the Louisiana Tignon Laws that forced women to wear head wraps with the rationale that natural hair threatened the status quo, and corporate culture that labels hair as unprofessional and distracting.
It's interesting to note that during the Three Kingdoms period and through Goryeo to early Joseon, the bigger, more elaborate, and textured a gache wig, the more valuable it was considered. Contrast this to the current day, where we have contractual terms that limit hair expression in dress codes. For example, "hair should be out of the face. Neat. Polished. Put together."
Lang's artwork breaks through oppressive commentary that curly hair is unprofessional, distracting, a sign of ill hygiene, etc. by highlighting each curl's beauty and individuality. As a viewer, I feel as though I am looking upon a subject that has made total peace with internal and external traumas regarding self-acceptance. In her piece, the juxtaposition of white and black effectively simplifies her message, making it feel raw and genuine.
My choice to dye my hair, I believe, came from a lack of self-expectance and a need to enhance myself. Now, used to the colour, I actually like it, and I am grateful the experience forced me to think deeply about the beauty standards I feel pressured to follow. It was refreshing to learn how artists are creatively fighting back against the appearance-based micro-aggressions women experience every day.
Su, Seong Myeong. “Korean Hair History and Making Gache.” Gold and Jade, 1 Apr. 2018, www.dellacivetta.org/goldandjade/2017/02/12/korean-hair-history-and-making-gache/.
Nasheed, Jameelah. When Black Women Were Required By Law to Cover Their Hair, 2018, www.vice.com/en_us/article/j5abvx/black-womens-hair-illegal-tignon-laws-new-orleans-louisiana.
Contemporary, Sienna Patti. “Yuni Kim Lang: Comfort Hair: Frost Art Museum, Miami: Sienna Patti Contemporary.” Artsy, 24 Sept. 2020, www.artsy.net/show/sienna-patti-contemporary-yuni-kim-lang-comfort-hair-frost-art-museum-miami.