2021 Medium: Wearable; Hand screen printed on cotton fabric Object #: TO-54 Ships with TO-55, Digital print on newsprint stock, 27.6 x 19.7 in., double-sided — Still available at the Brooklyn Museum and their online shop — Expanding upon themes from Baseera Khan’s “I Am an Archive” at the Brooklyn Museum. We present global perspectives of the hair economy rooted within our archival research & articulated through the mediums of wearables and digital prints. ( Read The Full Study Below ▼)
All people in the Western world have attained enough economic freedom to consider stray strands left on a hairbrush or comb worthless of consideration. But throughout slums in India, men and women who save these strands of hair for roaming trash collectors barely survive on whatever little they can get in exchange. This transfer marks the beginning of the human hair supply chain.
The average human sheds somewhere between 50-100 strands of hair a day. Something so ephemeral becomes commodity in the nearly $8 billion global human hair trade in which India finds itself at the center. A relationship that bears resemblance to the extractive inequities of the British Raj.
Hair made by comb waste is marketed as ‘standard hair’ and is the most abundant on the market. The cultivation, detangling, & processing of which stays dependent upon an economic model built upon depravity & exploitation with all manual labor performed by non-unionized workers in India, Bangladesh & Myanmar. The fallen hair (an artifact of what was once human scavenged by those barely clinging to being human) becomes a raw product—human crop—that in some cases is outsourced to other countries and then reassembled and sometimes racially re-engineered in industrial Xuchang, China (aka Hair City).
It takes a single skilled worker 80 hours to detangle 3.5 lbs of combed hairballs into resellable bushels. The average Indian comb hair collector is able to harvest a mere pennies worth of their own hair per week. The absolutely poorest resident of the industrialized world would consider this an incredible waste of effort but sadly it still makes a difference to slum dwellers of India, a sad indication of the level of disparity this neo-colonial capitalist market sustains in order to thrive.
Hair also plays a central role in the seemingly non-materialistic “spiritual economy”. In Medieval Europe, one would wear a hair shirt to cause pain to repent for the sinful life of the flesh. In various South Asian traditions, sacrificial shaving of hair functions as penance to rid oneself of earthly vanities and focusing on a higher plane. Further proof that capitalist realism is seeming inescapable as in 2019 alone, the coveted high-grade virgin Remy hair of Tirupati (143 tons) was auctioned off by the temple to generate nearly $1.5 million in revenue.
The industrialization of the hair trade in China can be traced back to the 19th century when Europe went mad for hair nets made of (male) Chinese hair (but rarely marketed as such). This same Europe had previously gone crazy for the “shampoo baths” of Sake Dean Mahomed and had an insatiable thirst for mystical hair growth secrets of “East Indians”. The word shampoo is derived from the Hindi chāmpo (चाँपो) and originally referred to head massage, usually with a concoction of hair oil.
The hair trade has also appeared in quibbles among superpowers. In 1966 after Indra Gandhi's white house meeting with LBJ the US imposed a ban on “communist hair” promoting India to overtake China as a major player in the hair trade.
The imagery within newspaper ads of this period starkly conveys how casually non-white “beauty” is fetishized to seem freakish and then commodified for global capitalist consumption. The “other” and their (bodily) contents only exist for manipulation and consumption by the white market. A tactic further promoting alienation of the nonwhite self.
The historically determined obsession with “good hair” by non-white people was driven by a system of white supremacist capitalism acted out through various guises from chattel slavery to mercantilist-driven colonialism. The hair trade situated itself to profit from selling white appearing hair extensions (most likely sourced from non-white people) and hair products such as hot combs & harsh chemical relaxers. Long after the turbulent end of Reconstruction, existentially ‘soul’ crushing hairstyles, such as the conk, were promoted as an absolute necessity for African-Americans to appear worthy enough to even think about achieving upward social mobility.
One of the earliest examples of 20th-century black capitalist success was Madam CJ Walker, black beauty magnet and innovator of the hot comb. Booker T. Washington the too often compromising founder of the National Negro Business League was deeply troubled by the burgeoning black beauty industry condemning hair straighteners and skin bleaching creams as further promoting black internalization of white concepts of beauty.
In 1960, Max Roach’s watershed album We Insist!/Freedom Now Suite fused international black politics, art, and aesthetics in the fight for black liberation and was mercilessly attacked by liberal bourgeoisie white jazz critics of the era. The lone female in the group, Abbey Lincoln, was hit hardest on racial & aesthetic lines. White jazz commentator Ira Gitler, lamenting on her change in hairstyle from mainstream showbusiness ‘do’ to the short natural afro she donned by the album’s release, called her ‘a professional negro gone astray’. Lincoln responded by saying “I was only allowed to capitalize on the fact that I was a negro…I looked the way western people expect you to look. I was a professional negro…not an artist, yet.”
Today the voracious appetite of global capitalism has further realigned itself; creating new “authentic” or “woke” product offerings packaged to solve the existential void its very system has created by providing consumers a chance to buy back into “natural” ways of being. To this day capitalism continues to force people of color worldwide to eat their own identity to survive.