'Tangle Teaser' at Sarabande: Taming the Mane While Confronting Society's Ugly Game

by Christina Donoghue on 8 June 2023

A new exhibition at Sarabande goes to great lengths to untangle the knots that make up many of society's biases towards hair. Understanding its crucial nature to creative expression, art and culture editor Christina Donoghue went to find out more.

A new exhibition at Sarabande goes to great lengths to untangle the knots that make up many of society's biases towards hair. Understanding its crucial nature to creative expression, art and culture editor Christina Donoghue went to find out more.

'[Hair] is a symbol of beauty and vigour and, once shed, a memory of lived experiences...something past, gone' - Isabel Castro Jung

How often have you heard someone say, 'I'm having a bad hair day'? The answer - we're guessing - is a lot. Our hair not only frames our face but, by doing so, doubles up as an expression of our personality. 'Every hairdresser I've ever met brings themselves into the equation of styling or cutting hair', lauded stylist and hair aficionado Eugene Souleiman told me recently when speaking of the film Medusa Deluxe; a who dunnit about a murder at a hairdressing contest Souleiman coined the coiffures for, in cinemas Friday 9 June. ‘It’s a very personal thing and a great form of expression if you've not been to art school', Souleiman added.

A new exhibition at Sarabande Foundation Tangle Teaser puts hair front, centre and, most of all, into a crucial perspective, offering different cultural viewpoints on hair's political and mythological significance. Curated by Shirin Fathi, one of Sarabande's many in-residence artists, the exhibition brings together eight craftswomen (including Fathi) who familiarise themselves with interweaving fine locks into their practice, whether literal or metaphorical. Interviewing Fathi over the phone, she tells me the show 'looks into many things', revealing how 'it untangles the knots in issues that exist around gender, beauty standards, politics and freedom by bringing different narratives in.'

Laila Tara H, 'Lice', 2023

'Hair has always been a fascinating subject to me', featured artist Isabel Castro Jung tells me.'[It's] an incredibly multilayered theme, representing ideas of culture, identity and time. I find its ambiguity especially interesting: a symbol of beauty and vigour and, once shed, a memory of lived experiences...something past, gone'. A performance artist whose interests lie in how our life experiences are linked to our bodies, Castro Jung's contribution explores 'hair as an identity and as a soulful and magical element', with one of her offerings including a tapestry made out of human hair - her own and her partner's - that she's collected for the last 15 years. 'Hair can be considered as something that makes you more desirable when it’s on your head but as soon as it leaves your body and its dead, it's seen as disgusting and something people don't like', suggests Fathi. ‘She [Castro Jung] just weaved the hair into a tapestry textile piece to counteract this notion, proving something that is often considered as a sign of disgust can then become something beautiful while also weaving in narratives of love and connection. It's very powerful'.

Also dealing in the realm of performance is artist Rosie Gibbens, who has a knack for dressing her work in absurdist humour to challenge stereotypical perceptions of the body. For Tangle Teaser, Gibbens has unveiled photographs showing her signature plaited hair growing from multiple unusual locations on the body. Featuring hair that has been collected from her brush as well as the hair still attached to her head, 'I was thinking about the horror of hair growing uncontrollably from my eyes, ears, nose and mouth', notes Gibbens in a statement that brims with as much humour as her work. Sharing similar hair obsessions with Castro Jung, Gibbens adds, 'I'm interested in the way that hair on the head is normal, and yet it becomes eerie or abject once removed'.

Rosie Gibbens, 'Hairballs', 2023. Photography Jon Baker

You'd be wrong to think not caring about your hair or appearance automatically makes you superior, especially when the former belongs to many colloquial insults and epoch-making mythologies. Think of the legend of Medusa, a tale of never-ending relevance that also serves as inspiration for exhibiting artist Paloma Tendero's offering, aptly titled Medusa's Hair. 'Her blood is said to be poisonous while also having a healing effect. Medusa’s head is a mirror and a mask - symbolic of the natural cycle of birth, death and rebirth', the press release notes, gently weaving in why this theme is relevant to Tendero as an artist.

Regardless of heritage or ethnic group, redheads will always be a minority, only reportedly making up 2% of the population, meaning they've fallen at the butt of jokes, stereotypes and many myths over the years. Notoriously linked with danger (and tales dating back to the Viking era), the violent history embedded in red manes is too long to state here. Current Sarabande artist Anouska Samms is all too aware of the complicated connotations being a redhead can bring, so much so it's these very myths - shrouded in danger and confusion - that are intrinsic to her sculptures, all of which focus on weaving human hair into ceramic-like structures that are weirdly (and wonderfully) inspired by her family. Speaking to her about her practise in person, Samms enthused 'I want to try everything', clearly refusing to be pigeonholed by one medium. 'I don't know, that probably makes me a greedy guts', she reflects. For what it's worth, it makes her anything but.

There's an ocean of blondes out there compared to gingers, but that doesn't mean they're exempt from judgement, either. We all know referring to someone as 'blonde' implies something much more than just the colour of the hair on their head. It's stereotypes like these that are not only futile but, for want of a better word, simply laughable - (most) myths are just that, myths. It's a shame I was late to this fountain of knowledge despite how endlessly puzzled my eight-year-old brain was when I heard the rumour to end all rumours, 'if you eat your crusts, you have curly hair': a declaration I couldn't make sense of at the time. I immaturely refused to eat the crusts from my toast for many years, so why did I have a lock of tight curls planted on my head?

Anouska Samms, 'DARK', 2022

Yes, myths are only myths; it's not like the one mentioned above that targeted hair like mine did any damage. However, the chant 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me' doesn't ring 100% true all of the time. Myths can become a weapon against freedom when politicised to propel false narratives or shut down voices entirely. Suddenly, they become much more dangerous when they're used to villainise black people's hair, an integral metaphor for blackness that's been subjected to racial slurs and biases over thousands of years. Repeatedly ostracised from the Western conversation of hair altogether, black hair is a centrepiece of black culture, a marker of identity, resistance, creative expression and ultimately, freedom. You don't need to look very far for creatives who are rising the ranks by turning their back on this distressing Western perspective. After all, Solange's ever-popular song Don't Touch My Hair has more in common with Emma Dabiri's ingenious book published in 2019 than just sharing the same name.

One of Fathi's favourite pieces of work in Tangle Teaser is by artist Shannon Bono, whose work deals with these very themes. Going beyond the realms of classic curation, Sarabande style, Bono has turned her space in the exhibition into a real-life salon - mirror, salon chair and hair extensions included. (I later find out that these extensions are the same as the ones in Bono's hair right now). 'It's nice seeing people look at themselves and adjust their hair in the mirror as they walk by', Bono tells me on the evening of the show's opening, 'it's like they're part of the installation'. Traditionally a painter, Bono was eager to express she, like Samms, doesn't want to be confined by one medium, as proven by her mini hair salon installation that sits next to two paintings, the latter focusing on projecting black women's own lived experiences. If it wasn't clear already, the marker of a good artist is one who wants more, and more, and more. 'I really like Shannon's work because she's building an environment and, by proxy, a conversation around hair - and I know how important the hair salons are in beauty culture, we all do', tells Fathi.

Bono's hair salon, Shannon Bono, 2023

If the above still isn't enough to convince you of hair's vast political power, then maybe Iran's Woman. Life. Freedom movement is - one which swallowed the country whole last September, spitting out an endless stream of much-need internationally televised protests spreading the message of politicised locks tenfold through society - shocking the West and the East, alike. It's worth mentioning here that Fathi is Iranian, but her heritage has nothing to do with the context of this exhibition. Her own work featured in the exhibition draws on 'medical sketches to talk about cosmetic surgery in Iran', the artist explains. 'Oftentimes, you don't see hair in these depictions so that there is more focus on the surgical procedures'.

At the beating heart is a show that does nothing more (or less) than 'highlight hair, and how we look at history, mythology and different cultures through hair. This is a show about how the meaning of how hair can change', emphasises Fathi. And it does change - as do beauty standards - again and again and again. Another piece of work Fathi created last year titled HeartThrobs (a transformational piece where Fathi drastically altered her appearance into three Persian archetypes) exists to reflect these changes in Western society and beyond. 'A non-binary perspective on gender and androgyny has been around for centuries' she told The Guardian at the time. 'Iranian culture hasn't always conformed to Western representations..."feminine" for Iranians is not constant but has evolved and changed throughout history'. Hair changes. It grows, it falls, it can be cut and lengthened. The possibilities as what to do with it are infinite. Don't believe me? Go see for yourself.

Tangle Teaser at Sarabande is open to the public until 12 June.

Paloma Tendero, 'Medusa’s Hair', 2018
Camilla Hanney, 'Domestic Pleasure', 2019
Shirin Fathi, First stage of rhinoplasty using a flap of forehead skin, Front, 2023


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