Exhibit pays homage to the charms, curses of hair

New York TimesOctober 3, 2012 


An ornament for a man's belt, made of women's hair, from the Aguaruna tribe of the Rio Manarnon region in South America, part of an exhibition at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, in an undated handout photo. The exhibit, "The Art of Hair: Frivolities and Trophies" celebrates the importance of hair across religion and culture.


— Hair, as the song from the musical goes, can be “long, straight, curly, fuzzy, snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty, oily, greasy, fleecy.”

It also can be “shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen, knotted, polka-dotted, twisted, beaded, braided, powdered, flowered and confettied, bangled, tangled, spangled and spaghettied.”

At the Musee du Quai Branly here, hair is just about all of these things, and even more. A new exhibition, “The Art of Hair: Frivolities and Trophies,” which opened last month, celebrates the universal importance of hair in art, fashion, style, ritual, sexuality, religion and culture, from antiquity to today.

Among the 280 objects on display are many of the kind you would expect at an art museum: paintings, photographs and sculptures. And the Quai Branly is the Paris repository for the indigenous art of the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania, so the exhibition also includes American Indian scalps, Ecuadorean shrunken heads, Peruvian mummified trophy heads and about 100 objects from the museum’s permanent collection, including masks, jewelry, talismans, clothing and weapons made or decorated with human hair.

Western art, artifacts

The opening rooms focus mainly on Western art and artifacts, juxtaposing blondes, brunettes and redheads to show the evolution of stereotypes attached to each: blondes as angels, saints and mothers; brunettes as their opposites – adventurers and sex symbols; redheads as drama queens.

Enormous color photographs of the dark-haired actresses Ava Gardner and Gina Lollobrigida, their lips slightly parted, their makeup heavy, their cleavages showing, hang in the same area as white marble busts of French royalty and Charles Cordier’s bronzes of African and Chinese figures with coiffures that qualify as works of art themselves.

Nearby is a series of paintings and photographs of redheads and blondes, including a very young Jane Fonda with her blond hair in a half-pageboy, half-flip, looking like a sorority sister.

The stereotypes don’t always hold: In one blown-up photograph, a very young and blond Brigitte Bardot looks neither saintly nor angelic nor maternal as she is about to kiss a very young Alain Delon.

And hair, this show demonstrates, can be simultaneously virginal and sensuous. In a 14th-century French stone sculpture of Mary Magdalene with her hands folded in prayer, she is caressed by, and enveloped in, hair that flows to her feet.

“Hair has no fixed meaning,” said Yves Le Fur, the exhibition’s curator. “It can show the norm and the anti-establishment, conformity and anti-conformity, seduction and repulsion, freedom and repression. It’s the only human material that can be shaped and distorted as you wish.”

The cultural divide

Multimedia slide shows and short films illustrate the paradoxes and cultural divides. One slide show presents long-haired men – a street person, Albert Einstein, a young man in dreadlocks, a 1960s hippie – and men and women with shaved heads: a monk, a breast cancer survivor, a prisoner, a body builder, a skinhead, a U.S. soldier, a Japanese warrior.

Other images and films capture connections between hair and loss. A photo of a Malagasy widow from the late 19th or early 20th century shows her long hair unkempt and flying in the wind; a widow in Madagascar did not wash for a year after the death of her husband, to avoid attracting potential suitors.

One of the most poignant objects is a hairpiece of three beautiful blond curls held together by a white satin bow and set in a simple frame. It was cut from a young woman named Emma when she entered the Carmelite order. Andre Malraux bought the object at a Paris flea market and gave it to a friend for his 20th birthday.

Lack of hair is associated with punishment in a short, silent black-and-white film clip made during the liberation of France, in which Frenchwomen, their heads shaved because they were believed to have had sexual relations with Germans, are paraded in public.

Clothing and ritual

The mood of the exhibition shifts in the exclusively non-Western rooms, where hair is used in clothing, body decoration and religious and cultural rituals. The integration of women’s long hair in Chinese tribal capes made of sheep’s and yak’s wool helped guarantee a dense natural weave that made the cape nearly impermeable. Wigs in Papua New Guinea were made of human hair and feathers, and in sub-Saharan Africa with mud, vegetable fibers, pigments and bark, as well as human hair.

A 20th-century Malagasy necklace of fabric, horn, wood, pearls, shells and hair offers a touch of whimsy: The pendant is a small wooden head decorated with human hair and wearing a hat and sitting peacefully in an animal horn. The figure seems to be smiling.

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