The human head has historically functioned as a portable three- dimensional canvas for creatively expressing individual, as well as communal, spiritual, aesthetic, and social values. All over the continent of Africa, hair art forms a vital part of body adornment for both men and women.
The head may be adorned in intricately designed headdresses, wigs, jewelries, or hair sculpture. African hair easily lends itself to several hair- sculpting techniques due to its variety in thickness, color and texture; from the tightly curled to the wavy and natural.
In various African societies, hair art also developed in relation to the type of emphasis placed on other forms of body ornamentation. Examples;
Maasai women don’t grow their hair long in an effort to visually separate their head from the body and this is achieved through wearing artistically handcrafted collars of brightly colored beads often sets. These in turn may be complemented by being worn in conjunction with beaded headpieces, earrings, chokers, and bandoliers, in what might be seen as a form of kinetic sculpture
Akan queen mothers in West Africa partly shaved the hair around the nape and forehead to distinguish their regal stature
In some African cultures, the head itself was coaxed into specially defined shapes from its bearer’s infancy into adulthood. These shapes were not only desired for their aesthetic effect, but often were considered to distinguish social standing, enhance a person’s gait, and express the spiritual values that the community deemed important. Perhaps the most outstanding example is the Mangbetu of Central Africa who prized cone-shaped heads as signs of increased intelligence. An infant’s cranium was molded with tight bands of hide and tree bark, a process repeated at regular intervals until the child reached adulthood. Mangbetu women designed special hairstyles to complement the conical shape. They braided the hair in a spiral around the scalp to the apex, attached hair extensions, and wove these into disc-shaped crowns.
Techniques and Designs
In Africa, skills and techniques of natural hairdressing are acquired mostly by informal apprenticeships, and infrequently by formal vocational training. The former process remains the most prevalent. The novice gleans the skills by observing an expert hair artist, perhaps a family member. Children start by braiding grasses, and then transfer their expertise on the dolls they make on their own.
The creation of hair designs is often a collaborative process between the artist and the client, with the enthusiastic participation of onlookers. The execution of the design; however, ultimately depends on the shape of the client’s head, the structure of the face, and the occasion for which the design is intended. Hairstyling sessions often last several hours, even days, for the execution of more elaborate coiffures.
Traditional Hairstyles styles reveal the rich history of interethnic trade, such as the batter trade and trans-Saharan caravan trade, where jewelry from distant lands became prized ornaments for embellishing various coiffures and similar aspects of hairstyling in different tribes.
A desired hairstyle was achieved through threading, braiding, twisting, cutting, and shaving, Sometimes a combination to create unusual coiffures for special occasions.
Traditionally, the most basic tools required, besides the artist’s skill, to create African hair art included a comb, some grease, a razor (if needed), and the desired accessories for decoration. For more elaborate coiffures, thread, hair extensions, dyes, and special ornaments may be used.
Braids may be left to cascade individually down the client’s head, or massed up into buns, knots, or other desired styles while the woven locks can further be cropped into short bangs, rebraided, meshed, coiled, or sculpted into magnificent three-dimensional patterns that simulate an infinite variety of shapes such as stars, bridges, snakes, baskets, topiaries, and brimmed hats.
To add flair to the style, an individual head is embellished with objects occurring naturally in local environment or acquired through trade were used. For example:
Karamojong of Uganda and their Kenyan neighbors the Turkana and Pokot would use mud mixed with water is traditionally used In hair styling among the It is used particularly at the back of the head where successive layers are built up by pressing mud into the hair. Once the structure has dried to form a hard and smooth surface it is painted.
Maasai male warriors (known as morans), whose long history of twisting delicate braids using red ochre, animal fat, and clay is legendary