Shani Crowe unlocks braids as high art

Artist Shani Crowe’s exhibition Braids almost crashed the internet this week as striking images of her interpretation of African braiding styles went viral. Evoking the work of African braids photographers Esi Sagay and JD Okhai Ojeikere, Crowe (27) is a self-taught braider who studied film production.

She styled and photographed the 10 images that showed at her solo exhibition in Chicago last week.

Do you consider yourself a hair braider or an artist?
I consider myself to be both. My father and older brother are artists, so I grew up immersed in the arts, with an abundance of creative materials at my fingertips. At the same time, I was practising braiding my dolls’ hair and then progressed to braiding my own hair.

As I began to assert myself as an artist and apply for grants and residencies, I realised I didn’t consider braiding to be a part of my artistic practice, and immediately felt charged to correct that. I realised that I had let societal misgivings about my culture mar my own perspective of its validity as an art form. Braids is an unapologetic assertion of my pride in my braid art and African ancestry.

How did you learn to braid hair like this?
I picked up the basic skill of cornrowing by watching my aunts and cousins braid hair, and from the feeling of having my hair braided. When I started doing my own hair at about age 11, I experimented with patterns and designs more. Then my hair started to attract clients, who became canvases for further experimentation. At that time, many of my clients would come to me and ask me to freestyle. I developed my own style and a reputation for very clean, neat, braided patterns.

Did you expect the response you have received?
I hoped for the work to be well received, but the response exceeded all of my hopes. The feedback has all been positive and has really galvanised my belief that when you create from your heart, positive intention radiates from what you have created. This project had been surrounded by love since its inception and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Shakere (Shani Crowe).

What is the cultural significance of braiding in the United States right now?
Braiding in Chicago and America at large has experienced a resurgence on two fronts. You have the emergence of a major market for natural hair, which has produced major innovations in products and extensions. Over the past five years, many women have started getting braids again as a form of protective styling, and as a way to shed the need to conform to European standards of beauty.

On the second front, popular culture has been flooded with braids, first on the fashion scene, with cornrows and “baby hair” making cameos on runways and in magazines. Now, many celebrities such as the Kardashians are riding the wave of this “new” trend. Trends come and go, but the art and tradition of African braiding has stood the test of time and will continue to do so.

Why did you decide to learn this ancient African art?
I started braiding as a child because I always wore braids and my cousins, who I looked up to, knew how to do it. At the time it was a rite of passage, a way to sit at the big girls’ table and be trusted with the responsibility of beautifying another person. I grew up in a pro-black, Afrocentric community in Chicago, where our African ancestry was taught and celebrated. Although I do not know at this point which ethnic group I come from, I am a person of African descent and I feel an innate connection to African tradition, especially as it relates to ceremonial adornment and beauty ritual.

Dorcas (Shani Crowe). 

Take us through your process: Do you imagine what a style will look like, put it down on paper and then braid, or are styles born in the moment?
All of my designs live in my head until I find a model I can braid them on. Sometimes they change slightly, but always for the better. The models always influence the outcome in some way, as I do believe their presence and energy contribute to the work. After I complete the style and my friend Imani does the make-up, I start photographing them. I choose the image that embodies the quintessential bold, effortless, unapologetic beauty that I’m trying to capture. I don’t want them to be pretty; I want them to be impactful, emotive and to be felt on a visceral level.

Do you have plans to share this gift with the rest of the world through, say, teaching or do you want to focus on being an artist?
I would like to do workshops with young girls to teach them a skill that is not only a platform for creativity, but a skill that leads to entrepreneurship and financial freedom. I always had money growing up and I made it on my own terms, without having to work for anyone else. There’s a definite pride that comes with that freedom, one that helps to build self-esteem and, in the long run, strengthen families and communities.

What are you most influenced by in your work?
I’m very much inspired by ceremonial garb, masks and other artefacts from a variety of African cultures. Although I am not religious, I’m inspired by depictions of religious idols. My own life experience and the hair trends I’ve seen in black American culture, Afro-futurism, and the beauty and spirit of my models also majorly impact on my work. Braiding is a deeply connective practice that connects not only the client and braider; it connects generations of displaced people to their native land.

What is your next move regarding your photographs?
I want to travel with my show, resume shooting for my next series, and eventually collect all of my portraits into a book. I really want to embark on a cultural exchange tour where I travel to different regions in Africa and learn their traditional braid styles and collaborate on new styles, while documenting the process. This project is really developing a life of its own, and I’m very excited to see what becomes of it.

Suntrust (Shani Crowe).

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Milisuthando Bongela
Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardians arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project.

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