St. Mary’s Academy hosts historical African hair exhibit

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

“African hair is very fragile,” Connie Dorsey Abdul-Salaam, a history professor at Southern University of New Orleans (SUNO) and curator of a current exhibit “Reclaiming Our Heritage: Traditional West African Coiffure Exhibit,” explained to students recently at St. Mary’s Academy.

She traced African hair from graphics discovered inside the tomb of a queen in 1060 B.C., to what 16th century explorers Thomas Astley and Francis Thomas first saw as examples of African hair when they visited the African continent to current day styles reminiscent of the past.

Dorsey Abdul-Salaam illustrated the various styles through artifacts from SUNO’s Center for African and African American Studies and her own collection. 

“It’s important for them to know – from a historical standpoint – how these hairstyles originated in Africa,” she said. “They think they are trying something new, but it is not new. It came from ancestors.”

SUNO school partners

The exhibit, a partnership between St. Mary’s and Southern University at New Orleans Center for African and African American Studies, aims “to educate students, faculty, and others of the historical aspects of traditional West African coiffure,” she said. “Long before Europeans came to the African continent, a lot of time was spent grooming, maintaining, and styling hair for certain occasions such as weddings and other rituals.”
She reiterated to students how traditional African coiffures could indicate a person’s ethnic group, ranking and marital status. Infants often had shaved heads. During the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade when Africans were brought to America, they had little time or access to products to care for their hair.

“The West African slave trade to the Americas forced Africans to abandon the skills that once gave them a dignified obligation to adorn and beautify themselves, especially their hair.” 

Clever Africans used their hairstyle to show paths (by water and roads) to freedom from slavery, she said.

Many West African coiffures disappeared after Emancipation since African-American men and women adopted European hairstyles and began assimilating “to white beauty.” 

Black nationalism in the 1950s-1970s brought rejection of European hairstyles in favor of natural Afro styles. In the 1980s-2000s, the Jheri curl (soft permanent wave) was in vogue, made popular by Michael Jackson, she said. Slides of the assymetrical hairstyles depicting Bobby Brown and braids worn by Janet Jackson were shown. 

As more African-Americans learn of their ancestral history, old hair styles such as intricate braids have returned in place of hair straighteners, depicted by African-American performers and actors Alicia Keys and Kerry Washington.

“This goes back in time. This is what your ancestors did,” she said. “Your black hair is beautiful. … You can do so much with African hair – twist it, lock it, braid it. … You just have to find your style.”

Shawntia Mitchell,15, learned a thing or two from the lecture and viewing statuary of hairstyles in three display cases in the library.

“All the modern styles we have like braids, Bantu knots and other styles aren’t new,” she said. “They came from our ancestors. I didn’t know that. … It was very interesting to learn where all these hairstyles came from and to see someone celebrating and keeping our traditions alive.” 

What’s in exhibit

The exhibit contains an array of photos (mostly illustrating current hairstyles of SUNO students taken by Dorsey), masks, statues and other artifacts from the permanent collection at SUNO’s Center of African and African American Studies (CAAAS), said Dr. Clyde Robertson, associate professor of humanities and CAAAS director at SUNO.

It is actually an update on a West African Coiffure exhibit curated by Dorsey Abdul-Salaam as a graduate student at the University of Iowa.

“We worked to increase the amount of items in the exhibit,” Robertson said. “We have the largest collection of Central and West African Art in the state of Louisiana,” with more than 1,000 pieces.

The exhibit is just one collaboration between SUNO and St. Mary’s since a relationship was established in 2017. Others include creating a  literary center for classroom use, sponsoring motivational speakers and launching the “Discovering Eritrea” exhibit with speakers.

“One of our missions is to develop linkages with schools across the city and region,” Robertson said. “St. Mary’s was the first school with which we have established this adoption relationship. What comes along with adoptions are various things – we coordinate programming at the school and invite St. Mary’s students to programming at SUNO.”

St. Mary’s participated in at least four programs on SUNO’s campus last year. Students recently attended a Kwanzaa celebration.

Robertson said the Eritrea exhibit exposed St. Mary’s students to an unfamiliar country and people. 

“Every year we will provide them with a new exhibition,” he said, of the African diaspora.

St. Mary’s librarian Michelle Ochillo said the exhibit is valuable because it explains a richness within the African-American culture.

“Children must realize the beauty of their own hair,” she said. “As a society, we need to be more open and accepting. … Our kids need to love who they are in every way possible – their inner and outer beauty.”

Robertson sees his adoption of schools as an enhancement, not a replacement, of classroom learning. “CAAAS’ mission is to augment what the school offers the students so we can provide those students with a global education and perspective,” she said.

The exhibit is open weekdays from 9 a.m.-noon through Dec. 21 and by appointment by calling St. Mary’s librarian Michelle Ochillo at 245-0200, ext. 123. It will be seen next semester at St. Katharine Drexel. St. Mary’s is located at 6905 Chef Menteur Hwy., New Orleans. Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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