Thursday, December 17, 2015

Nappy or Not Nappy? A Round Table Discussion at the Musée Dapper

On December 5, the Musée Dapper hosted an event called "Libérer les cheveux (Liberate Hair): Nappy or not Nappy?"

Billed as an encounter between Professor Maboula Soumahoro of François-Rabelais University in Tours and Rokhaya Diallo, journalist, activist, and author of the recently released book Afro, it was actually a round table discussion during which Professor Soumahoro interviewed five persons about their hair and what wearing it natural has meant for them.

Cover of Afro by Rokhaya Diallo
Image from

Aurélie Leveau, general administrator of the museum and creator of the video installation Afriques Plurielles that is being shown as part of the Chefs-d'oeuvre d'Afrique exhibition, introduced Soumahoro to a full house. She reminded attendees that one of the three segments of the installation, called "Libérer les cheveux," examines ancient and contemporary rituals around hair.

Aurélie Leveau
© Discover Paris!

Nappy or Not Nappy? - Audience
© Discover Paris!

Professor Soumahoro, who has been a visiting lecturer in Africana Studies at Barnard College and at the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS) at Columbia University in New York, opened the afternoon by showing images of several celebrities who have worn or currently wear their hair naturally.

Image of Janelle Monae
© Discover Paris!

She followed this with a short clip from the video You Can Touch My Hair that was co-produced by one of the panel members, Antonia Opiah,

Scene from You Can Touch My Hair
© Discover Paris!

and then gave a presentation on the historic, cultural, and political ramifications of the transatlantic slave trade and the systematic denigration of everything about black people, including their hair. She emphasized that the "Nappy" movement is not new, but rather a renewal of a struggle to find beauty and dignity in natural hair.

Maboula Soumahoro
© Discover Paris!

Soumahoro began the interview session with Rokhaya Diallo, who talked of how she considers her short afro a militant hairstyle because no other French television journalist "talks of serious things and has hair like hers." She mentioned that when people living in France decide to "go natural," family and friends living in their ancestral countries of origin often don't understand or appreciate it.

Rokhaya Diallo
© Discover Paris!

Diallo also talked about why she chose to include North Africans (Maghrébins) in the book, stating that these populations suffer the same stereotypes and have the same difficulties in maintaining natural hair as do black Africans. This topic was a natural introduction to the second interview of the afternoon.

Fatima Aït Bounoua, professor of modern letters, teaches at a high school in Seine Saint-Denis. She told how her mother tried to "tame" her curly locks when Fatima was a child so that she would not look like Aïsha Kandisha, the witch of Moroccan legend. She spoke poignantly about how much of the self-image that young North African girls have of themselves is centered on the texture of their hair and remarked that she's had students tell her she would be pretty if she straightened her hair.

Fatima Aït Bounoua
© Discover Paris!

Chrystèle Saint-Louis-Augustin spoke from the perspective of being a fashion model and shared that her natural look is what inspired Benetton to select her for its United Colors of Benetton campaign in the mid 90s. She said she's always worn her hair natural, even when it was clearly not in her professional interest to do so. She has become accustomed to hair stylists at photo shoots being inexperienced with how to work with her hair and needing her guidance in doing so.

Chrystèle Saint-Louis-Augustin
© Discover Paris!

Dancer and choreographer Fabrice Taraud was the only man on the panel. He commented that his hair seems to evoke chaos in the minds of those who meet him and remarked how, because of his small stature and his long hair, people who don't know him often assume he is a woman. He recounted that people reach out and touch his hair, sometimes simultaneously asking permission and other times not. He said his mother entreated him to do "something" with it - cut it or braid it - because she was afraid he would not be able to find work with long natural hair.

Fabrice Taraud
© Discover Paris!

Taraud said his young son has natural hair and people think it's cute. He's waiting to see what people's reaction to his son's hair will be when he becomes a young teen.

Rounding out the panel was Antonia Opiah*, founder of and the Unadorned Media network. Antonia is exploring the cultural differences among different African Diaspora populations regarding natural hair in a docu-series called Pretty. She stated her belief that the interest in and increasing passion for natural hair is forming cross-cultural bridges and fostering increased understanding across the globe. She mentioned a peculiar state of affairs in the U.S. where, in several states, hairdressers are not legally allowed to braid hair because they are not taught to do so in beauty school and therefore do not have a license to do so.

Antonia Opiah
© Discover Paris!

Professor Soumahoro and others on the panel asserted that this situation also exists in France, concluding that "officially, nappy hair does not exist" in the world of cosmetology here.

Afro contains photographic portraits of 110 persons - men and women, French and non-French - who shared what it means to wear their hair natural, in braids, or in dreadlocks. Issues range from core beliefs about self-worth and economic implications in terms of employment to practical matters such as where to find a hairdresser and hair care products adapted to natural hair.

Collage of portraits from Afro projected during
"Nappy or Not Nappy?"
© Discover Paris!

Photographer Brigitte Sombié was not present at the event.

*Don't miss reading this powerful post by Antonia Opiah: "Can I Touch Your Hair?"


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