Haidy Geismar, UCL
This is a short commentary on the current special exhibition at the Musee du Quai Branly, Paris’ “Museum of the others”. The exhibition, Cheveux Cheris: Frivolites et Trophies, translated into English as The Art of Hair is curated by Yves LeFur, Director of the Museum’s Heritage and Collections Department and draws on the museum’s extensive collections of objects made from (mainly) human hair and images of people and their hair. The argument is that hair is universally a powerful cultural and aesthetic medium. The result is a series of disconnected objects and images that contain an underarticulated narrative of gender, oppression, violence and power.
The exhibition, on the second floor of the museum, high above the controversial galleries, is first glimpsed through a tantalizing art installation that can be seen from below. I apologize as it is one of the few pieces I seem not to have documented the author of.

In the extensive commentary and slideshows to be found in the media it seems that most critics enjoy the curatorial strategy of juxtaposition between different kinds of object, and different art media. Slideshows such as those in the New York Times and Women’s Wear Daily (for the exhibition appeals as much in the fashion media as in the museum and gallery pages) jump from Man Ray’s portrait of the back of Marcel Duchamp’s head, to a 1964 Neal Barr shot of a beauty conscious Texan track club, through to a decontextualized shot of a shrunken head from Ecuador. As I meandered through the first section from 19th century busts of Black and White people, through to documentary portraits of African corn-rows and paintings of Medieval Kings, the take home message seemed to be simple: look, hair! Pithy texts commented made comments such as

In the traditional iconography of feminine beauty, rolling waves of opulent curls are more readily associated with seduction than simple straight hair. For long periods of time the revelation of loose, unfettered hair was confined to the intimate, private sphere. Transferred to the public arena, it can suggest flaunted intimacy or transgression of these codes.

But individual artifacts were not drawn particularly into this narrative, providing the viewer only with the most basic of tombstone labelling.
The exhibition was divided into sections which mused upon the “universal theme”of hair, with sections devoted to metamorphosis and permutation (hair styles long and short), colours and normality (only for women), seduction (also only women), discipline (also mainly for women), a little bit of blurring gender boundaries, loss and removal of hair (mainly women), rights of passage and ornamention, ritual, trophies and the ancestors (the last sections were less gendered, but were the sections that dealt with a genderless other).
My attention was really caught in the transitional moment of the exhibition, which was a series of photographs by Robert Capa and a video (produced by the Museum) of French women, collaborators, having their heads shaved and being paraded by members of the French resistance in the town of Chartres, in 1944. Here for me was a powerful instantiation of the point made only glibly in the short exhibition texts, that hair is a profound, universal marker of gender and sexuality, and the hair styles are instruments and embodiments of power, and even force.

This point could have also been made in the second half of the exhibition which focused exclusively on the relationship of hair and the human body in contexts that, in the context of the exhibition, can only be catgorized as “primitive”. This is not my term or even that of the museum, but rather the inevitable conclusion of any visitor who moves from historicised and art historical display strategies (with authored creations, years of creation etc) to displays which are labelled only generically as ethnic or cultural. the move is also mirrored as a transition from the representational media of film, photography, painting, and sculpture, to the visceral medium and material of the actual human body. The transition was a shock that again was naturalized rather than critically engaged with in the exhibition. Excuse the lack of images but many of the objects are disturbing, and I feel that they are inappropriate to reproduce. An entire human being in a glass case – a mummy from Chancay, Peru (“1000-1450”), and an entire room filled with “shrunken” heads, one of whom looked reproachfully outwards, lips sewn shut.
It was at this point that the connections being made around hair started to dissipate at least for me. What does a photograph of an African woman by Samual Fosso taken in 2008, a portrait of a buxom blonde being kidnapped by Norman pirates (in a painting by Evariste Vital Luminaise) and a scalp from Tanzania at the end of the twentieth century (“Ce scalp pourrait etre celui d’un Europeen”) have in common? Yes, they may tell us about the violence of cross-cultural engagement and the role of women within it, but what do they really tell us about hair?
Overall the exhibition is impressive in its range and diversity and the attempt to create a universal sensibility out of such a range of objects and media is admirable. How indeed could such an exhibition really be achieved without falling into the inevitable trap of superficial connection? As with many of the exhibitions at Quai Branly, The Art of Hair raises provocations about the limits of cross-cultural representation and display.


  1. Hi, really interesting commentary! I really would like to see this exhibition, and have e miled the Musee du Quai Branley to see if I can purchase a book (in English if possible)
    Julia Cocorachio

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