The Plumage of Another, curated by Michael Palma Mir and featuring artists Vicky Charles, Yelaine Rodriguez, Faustino Vidal, Leslie Jimenez, and Jorge Romero, examines the notion of hair, aka “plumage,” as a social signifier and an expression of individuality.
Curator, Michael Palma Mir on The Plumage of Another.
Written in 1974 about the increase in court cases adjudicating a state’s right to control the appearance of individuals purposefully flaunting social conventions through physical appearance, this Apartment Gallery Series exhibition revisits the important role hair plays for these featured photographers nearly 50 years removed from Supreme Court Justice Douglas’ still enduring concern.
The photographers selected have taken up the examination of one’s plumage in response to the never ceasing tension to control hair vis-à-vis notions of perceived beauty and ethnic identity, through the struggle against societal conformity and the need to celebrate our inherent uniqueness. No longer a matter of governmental law, these photographers, Vicky Charles, Leslie Jiménez, Yelaine Rodriguez, Jorge Romero and Faustino Vidal make their highly personalized case in demonstrating the subtle ways one segment of society continues to dominate and influence control over another’s hair. Be it on the body, face, or head, whether removed, replaced, relaxed, dyed, bound, loose, long, short, curly, straight, or synthetic, they inscribed hair with meaning as a manifestation of resolute cultural preference and strident political statement.
As if to place us back in that exact tumultuous time in our Nation’s history, Yelaine Rodriguez’ series of high key, stunning black and white portraits “Political Afro” evokes in present day faces and gazes the pluck and perseverance of individuals who before those pictured here challenged the status quo, armed only with the philosophy of nonviolence, the strength of their convictions, and the countenance of their courage. The sum of their struggles, down payment on the dignity and respect so dearly paid in the Civil Rights movement, are clearly seen in Yelaine’s emotive pictures, through the personages’ confident pose, sure expression, and compelling hair. In stylistic contrast, Vicky Charles’ colorfully whimsical photographs belies the poignancy of her messaging, of the social reckonings and multifarious kinds of wrong still afflicted upon people of color. Her curly black locks draw our attention to the race-based brutality from gassings, shootings, strangulations, of the martyrdom and sacrifices laid upon the altar of the law.
Looking at hair as a cultural extension, these photos also examine the root of identity, hair’s function as an object open to both self-promotion and communal belonging. A point of contention in Latinx and Afro Latinx culture, their photographs place hair types into two distinct categories, “pelo malo” and “pelo Bueno”. “Pelo malo” means bad hair in Spanish, and it refers to afro-textured and curly hair. “Pelo bueno” means good hair, and it refers to straight hair. Faustino Vidal’s collage celebrates those who go against the conventions of “good hair” and who are unafraid to reclaim who they are, love what they have and embrace it. Shape to resemble a hair pick, Faustino assemblage and the photographs within untangles notions of hair as anything of import beyond its natural state, it is simply joyous, powerful, and beautiful.
Jorge Romero takes up this discussion within the cultural norms of his Dominican upbringing, where as a child he and his sister were forced to have a certain kind of hairstyle. In his intimate portraits of two friends, who also shared his experience, Jorge supersedes the discussion, leaps forward with their highly stylized hair that can only be characterized as “pelo mio” or my hair. Hair does not define them but rather is an instrument of self-expression, their individualistic personality and the freedom associated in choosing the way they wear their hair.
Leslie Jiménez playful yet introspective series about hair falls within the context of cultural notions of self-display, identity, ethnic awareness, and beauty. Using coffee time “Cafecito” as an invitation, a conversational metaphor, Leslie establishes and maintains a dialogue touching on internalized racism deeply rooted in the perception of descendants from her colonized islands of the Dominican Republic. Hair is an element that carries a deep connection to historical trauma, and personal dilemmas, when it comes to understanding and embracing the nature of who we are and the richness of our troubled histories. Whether dictated by society or by culture, hair as a social signifier, as an alterable creative medium and mediator of meaning, is treated by these photographers to convey both a sense of self and otherness, a manifestation of individuality and of conformity.
Through their own words and images, thanks to En Foco’s innovative online approach to capture and present not only their photographs, but also their story, through their spoken word – these photographers speak and show hair as the picture of physical strength, supernatural power, self-acceptance, and spiritual superiority. Whichever their case, these photographers all celebrate hair as a resplendent and essential statement of one’s social political consciousness on cultural ethnicity and racial pride.
This exhibition is supported in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council, New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, Ford Foundation, The Lily Auchincloss Foundation, Joy of Giving Something, Inc., and private contributions. Member of the Urban Arts Cooperative.