By Roman Vargas-Garcia ’24
April 4, 2021
In March, the Colleges had the privilege to host the works of artists Nakeya Brown and Nafis White at the Davis Gallery in Houghton House. Even during times when social interactions are limited, students, faculty and staff can physically see and learn from these pieces of art. The gallery focuses on the experiences of African American women through the perspective of talking about the topic of Black hair.
This exhibition is the first of its kind here at Hobart and William Smith. According to Assistant Professor of Art and Architecture Angelique Szymanek, “There has been a vast lack of work by artist of color [shown], specifically by black women.” Syzmanek says that Brown’s work “is unique to the identity of the artist but also, perhaps more importantly, the content and the theme of the work itself, which I can say with upmost confidence, has never been shown.” The presence of this exhibition on campus creates an opportunity for people to educate themselves and hear previously unheard voices through art and photography.
Within the gallery, Brown’s pieces consist of multiple series of photographs that probe the topic of Black hair in different ways. One series in the gallery called “The Refutation of “Good” Hair” sets out a refutation of what mainstream society sees as beautiful when it comes to hair. By showing the multiplicity and inconsistencies within understandings of authentic and Black hair, Brown debunks the expectation of what beautiful hair should be for Black women.
Another series, called “Xpressions: Black Beauty Still Lifes,” shows the work and labor of Black people through hairstyling, which historically has been undermined in the past century and further back. Hairstyling has been a means for Black women to justify their legitimacy and their identities.
White’s work in the exhibition encompasses multiple hair sculptures of various sizes, colors, patterns and textures, which ultimately show the diversity of Black hair culture. Even though these pieces are part of different series made by White, they can represent the justification of Black hair as a topic of conversation in places where it has not been a topic before. The goal is to make treat Black hair as art in the art world and the public at large.
One big contributor in putting this exhibition together, as part of an independent study with Szymanek, was Hope Lee ’22. In curating an exhibition that is unique and trailblazing, Lee felt that the bar was set high. Upon hearing great reactions and feedback from the public, she saw this exhibition to be necessary, since many people were able to, and continue to, educate themselves. As for the inspiration that has come from this exhibition, Lee sees this as a collaborative effort made by multiple people who are willing to bring much-needed perspectives and stories to the HWS and Geneva community alike.
With the exhibition, there was also a recognition of the land, voices and experiences of marginalized communities. As demonstrated by the amount of education and inspiration being shared and produced from this showing, it seems that this recognition should continue on campus.
The Better than Good and Hair Stories Untold exhibitions will be in the Davis Gallery until April 25.
Featured Image by Ani Freedman.