Exhibition Review: Sandro Miller's My Hair, My Soul, My Freedom at Chicago Art Expo
By Miabelle Salzano
Sandro Miller’s exhibition My Hair, My Soul, My Freedom shows hairstyles being worn by Black women today and will be premiering at the Chicago Art Expo on Thursday, September 14th. Each hairstyle presented is based on the specific model’s personal “hair story” and is modeled after something she would wear on the street. The uniform black tone painted on the models’ skin serves as an equalizer that removes any potential prejudicial biases. Hair is made the focal point of the images, as each model is set against an either vibrantly colorful, or strikingly black background in order to accentuate the colors and shapes of her hairstyle.
Sandro’s photographs remind us of traditional African tribal art with the use of colorful backgrounds that include, or were inspired by, several African prints. The color of the models’ skin is dramatically juxtaposed against these patterns making them look almost artificial in nature, both flawless and romantic. A representation of strength and good health, but also a reflection of the fact that society has not yet fully accepted black hair; these images are still a fantasy. There is some contempt showing through the expressions on the models’ faces suggesting that, even though they have every right to express themselves, they know, and are tired, of those who will pose microaggressions in reaction to their hairstyles. Sandro’s technique brings together the past and the present and emphasizes the beauty of blackness, successfully demonstrating his ideas about racial freedom and hair. This aspect of new within old, or vice versa, begs the question of whether or not these hairstyles are contemporary, or if it is African American women returning to the roots that had been stripped from them throughout history.
Sandro states that “the project reflects on the ornamentation and a medium of artistic self-expression and freedom.” African American women have been oppressed with regards to their hair from the dehumanizing practice of shaving heads during slavery to the 1978 Louisiana Law that ruled black women had to cover their hair in public. European beauty standards expect women to straighten their natural hair, and black women have been denied jobs because their hair was deemed ‘inappropriate.’ Freedom of hair helps Black women take back their place in society and have the confidence to make a statement with their blackness. As a combination of traditional African tribal art and the modern Black woman, the My Hair, My Soul, My Freedom exhibition represents the freedom to move forward as well as a chance to exist again in a time before hair style and skin color were things for which to be shamed.
Sandro is among other artists that have addressed race and identity with regards to hair. Lorna Simpson made her name in the 1980s and 90s for her work with black and white photography. Her series Wigs explored the stigma attached to black hair and other societal beauty conventions in a collection of photographs of hair pieces. She detached identity from each hair piece by photographing them in black and white from behind, leaving it up to the audience to create the person who might wear each piece. Sandro, however, is the first to make use of such colorful backgrounds, associating the bright patterns and colors with his personal memories of powerful dance and happiness as the ultimate freedom. He highlights his models’ identities, especially their hair, adding his unique touch to the artistic discussion of racial boundaries.
“Today, African and other black skinned men and women are free, their souls no longer enslaved and through the styles worn on their heads their freedom shines,” Sandro stated of his inspiration for this project. Through these portraits, Sandro captures the confidence Black women now experience because of their hair. While viewing these images we can feel the emotions of hundreds of years of history seeping out of the paper fibers.