What do Louis XIV, the Kanaks of New Caledonia and the punk generation have in common? For starters, all paid a great deal of care to their hair, subject of a major new show at Paris’ museum of tribal arts.
Forget the cliche of the wild-haired caveman: “Humans have cut, arranged and coiffed their hair since at least 21,000 BC,” explains Yves Le Fur, curator of the 10-month show dubbed “Cheveux Cheris” (Dear Hair), opening on September 18.
From jewels, wigs and headdresses, to talismans, mummies — or human scalps — the Quai Branly Museum’s treasure trove of artefacts from Africa, Oceania or Latin America provide the backbone of the exhibit.
But the show takes the millennia-old history of hair in its stride, from the way a hairstyle defines us, to its shifting fashions and codes, why people grow or shave it, and what happens when we lose it.
To set the scene, a gallery of busts in marble and bronze from the 16th to 19th centuries depicts the European greats of the day, opposite no less gloriously-coiffed figures from Africa or China.
Chosen pieces from the Western canon capture the poetry of hair, from a 14th-century statue of Mary Magdalene, locks flowing to her ankles, to a 1900 stone naiad, “L’Aurore”, smiling at daybreak behind a veil of parted curls.
Cut to the 20th-century, where giant portraits of Brigitte Bardot and Ava Gardner recall the iconic blondes, brunettes and redheads of the screen age — their impeccable curls more than matched by the “Bouffant Belles”, an all-female Texan running team from the 1960s.
Captured in the glossy blonde chignons at a 1924 Parisian coiffure evening, the Western ideal is set opposite the looped and tressed hairstyles of Mahafaly women from Madagascar, in a shot taken 15 years later.
Likewise, hair-as-rebellion is spotlighted in a video installation featuring punk Mohicans and edgy catwalk looks — alternating with similar hairstyles worn perfectly seriously in traditional societies.
But beyond the to and fro between Western and non-Western cultures, the show makes a broader point.
Under the Carolingian kings in mediaeval times, long hair was a sign of royalty. Elsewhere long hair stood for religious devotion, for mourning or hippie rebellion.
Soldiers, monks and skin-heads have in common their shaved skull.
“Hair does not have a fixed meaning. It’s like a conduit for social codes,” explained Le Fur.
These codes are on full display in part two, which explores what happens when we lose our hair — wilfully or not.
Three blonde curls, fastened with a bow into a poignant relic, are all that remains of “Emma”, who cut off her hair to enter a Carmelite nunnery in 1900.
From Gabon, Guinea, Japan or Brazil, video archives from the 1950s to 1980s highlight the initiation ceremonies where shaving the head is a rite of passage.
But the dramatic keynote comes from photo and video footage dated August 1944, showing French women, one of them with babe in arms, paraded before a hateful crowd, their heads shaved as punishment for cavorting with German troops.
For Helene Fulgence, the museum’s director of exhibitions, the cruel images get to the heart of the matter.
“These women weren’t injured, hair grows back. And yet this is truly an act of torture and humiliation. It is extreme evidence of the fact that hair is one of the seats of human dignity.”
Dignity is also at stake in the melancholy room devoted to extreme old age — featuring a shot of a nearly-bald William S. Burroughs in 1995, two years before the Beat Generation writer died.
Which leads into the final section, displaying decorative and ritual objects made of human hair, with toucan feathers on a hairpiece from Ecuador, or matted on the macabre “shrunken heads” created as trophies by Amazonian tribes.
“Each one of these objects contained — at a given moment — the energy of a human being,” said Le Fur. “Because hair doesn’t rot, it provides a gateway between the living and the dead.”
Nowhere is this truer than in New Caledonia, where Kanak mourner-priests let their hair grow for three years, to create giant domes of hair mounted upon wood-and-feather masks.
“They believe the hair connects them to their ancestors like a cable,” said Fulgence. “Which just goes to to show hair is about much more than looks.”