These Artworks Explore the Cultural Significance of Hair

A new exhibition at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Australia examines what hair says about identity, gender, social status and more

Wig Shoes
Wig Shoes, Chunxiao Qu, 2017 © Chunxiao Qu

Throughout history, decisions about how hair is styled and worn have been packed with cultural significance. Now, a new exhibition at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne, Australia, is examining hair’s many meanings through art.

“For millennia, hair has been a resonant and compelling subject, transmitting ideas about gender, mythology, status and power, the body, psychology, feminism and notions of beauty,” says senior curator Melissa Keys in a video. “Occupying a prominent place in the world of appearances, it has always assumed a particular importance in relation to the self and society.”

The new show, titled “Hair Pieces,” features works from 38 artists hailing from eight countries. Visitors will see paintings, sculptures, photography, video, installation and recorded live performances.

Loving Care
Loving Care, Janine Antoni, 1992 © Janine Antoni / Janine Antoni / Luhring Augustine, New York

Keys tells the Guardian’s Tim Byrne that she started thinking about the exhibition about ten years ago, when some of her friends were running a gallery in a space previously occupied by a hair studio.

“It’s a massive topic,” she says. “So many artists work with this material, so there’s an opportunity for a number of shows. I wanted this one to be open and suggestive, rather than exhaustive.”

Some of the artworks strike a serious tone, while others are humorous—or even downright weird. Walking through the exhibition, visitors will encounter a can of mushrooms filled with brunette strands, fuzzy red shoes made from wigs and several pieces the Guardian describes as reminiscent of Cousin Itt.

Australian artist Julie Rrap’s contribution, Horse’s Tale (1999), is a provocative still that depicts “a horse’s tail coming out of my bum,” as she tells the Sydney Morning Herald’s Kerrie O’Brien. The work examines ideas such as beauty standards, grooming practices and cultural expectations of women.

Rrap often uses hair as a medium to interrogate notions of identity and gender. As she tells the Sydney Morning Herald, she’s noticed that something magical happens the moment that hair is cut and falls on the ground.

“It completely shifts gear and becomes something discarded and a bit horrible, so it’s very interesting, which is what fascinated me when I was using it,” she says. “It’s got this quite abhorrent [quality]. It can move from something beautiful to something quite grotesque and disconcerting.”

Some pieces on view are playful. Charlie Sofo and Debris Facility’s Found Combs, which began in 2007, is a collection of combs that were found on the street. Some of them are brand new, while others are missing teeth or still have hair in them.

Other artworks take on weightier subjects. A video installation from Johannesburg-based artist Kemang Wa Lehulere, called Pencil Test 2 (2012), shows Wa Lehulere moving pencils through his hair—a reference to a practice in South Africa in the 1950s, when officials used a “pencil test” to classify a person’s race. If a pencil fell easily through someone’s hair, they were classified as white. If the pencil stayed put, they were classified as “Black,” “Indian” or “colored.”

Relation in Time
Relation in Time, Ulay and Marina Abramović, 1977 © Marina Abramović and Ulay / Marina Abramović Archives / LIMA Amsterdam

Perhaps the most famous artists featured in the exhibition are Marina Abramović and Ulay. Relation in Time (1977) features video footage of the partners sitting back-to-back for hours, their long hair intertwined in a bun.

“Hair contains this multiplicity of associations, and that was one of the things that really interested me about it—its complexity and the fact that it is very difficult to kind of pin down,” Keys tells the Sydney Morning Herald. “That’s one of the reasons artists constantly come back to it.”

Hair Pieces” is on view at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Australia through October 6, 2024.

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