When Min Jung Kim stood before the media, staff members and other invited guests for the first press breakfast of her tenure as the Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum last month, it was clear that representation and inclusion are top of mind as she settles into her role.
“There were several things that attracted me to Saint Louis and the Barbara B. Taylor Director position,” Kim said in her opening remarks. “Of course the museum is held in high esteem – and of course the collection is superb. But I was also impressed by the board leadership’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
She praised a diversity study group report and the work being done to implement the actions and policies that it suggested – specifically the institution’s newly formed office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the expansion of the Romare Bearden fellowship to include a two-year fellow. The new DEI office is led by Renee Franklin in the newly created role of chief diversity officer.
Two weeks after the press breakfast, Shaka Myrick – the inaugural two-year Romare Bearden fellow – facilitated a virtual lecture as part of the Women’s History Month programming that explored the dominating impact of Black hair within Black culture entitled,“If It Wasn’t for the Women: Hair Sculpting a Culture.”
“This year’s theme ‘Hair Sculpting a Culture’ was inspired by my personal interest,” Myrick said. “While sorting through my old undergrad work at University of Missouri- Columbia, I noticed a common thread – realizing that most of my work: ceramic, painted, drawn collage, wood block and screen prints were all centered around Black hair and its evolving history. It became pretty obvious to me that Black hair has impacted cultures all over the world.”
Myrick used examples of African art from the Saint Louis Art Museum’s permanent collection to illustrate her point before opening the discussion to the panelists. Two Black women visual artists of varying practices and a third who identifies as non-binary spoke in great detail about how European beauty standards and systemic racism are at the root of the love/hate relationship Black women often have with their hair. They displayed their own work to guide them through talking points.
“For much of my life the battles over race, sex and gender identity took place on my hair and this has had a profound on my work,” said Joann Quiñones. “In my family, a racial hierarchy existed where whiteness and near white features were praised and Black features were at best a source of shame and a problem that could be resolved through hair straightening, skin bleaching cream or staying out of the sun altogether.”
A breast cancer diagnosis as the age of 36 gave Quiñones new perspective – and a new appreciation for her curls.
“Losing my hair – all of it – conveyed to me how much hair played a role in my life, both as battleground and marker of identity,” said Quiñones. “How much of our hair rituals have only to do with others’ expectations of what we should look like and be like. When in all of my life had I ever been happy with my hair? Watching it grow back I felt a great tenderness for it. I didn’t want to take it for granted.”
Summer Brooks provided additional context while discussing the inspiration behind her piece entitled “Crown,” a spray foam figure that uses Black hair and Black culture to represent royalty.
“There are still so many conversations about Black hair politics and whether our [natural] hair is deemed appropriate for workplace and professional settings,” Brooks said. “As Black women and Black culture, we often struggle with self-worth. We see ourselves as less-than sometimes because we are constantly being told that our skin is too dark and that we should straighten our hair. But ‘Crown’ is basking in our beauty. It represents the magical sensation of what taking down your braids or wearing your afro feels like.”
“Hair is a form of adornment I tend to focus on a lot as it has been important to me ever since I can remember,” said artist Jada Patterson. “It is something that has taken up a lot of my time and energy – whether I was sitting between someone’s legs for hours getting my hair done or dreaming up and/or researching the next style that I wanted.”
She shared the experience of getting her first silk press for her fifth-grade graduation and her friend telling her that she should get a relaxer.
“I remember going home to my Italian mother and begged her to let me relax my hair and how she let me do it before sixth grade – not knowing better,” Patterson said.
After deciding to grow her hair back to its natural state, she was teased by cousins for wearing a chemically damaged afro.
“I started flat ironing my hair to get rid of the kinks that I was trying to love,” Patterson said. “Eventually I threw all of that thinking away, thank God. I started to fall in love with my coils – tangled and all.”