Chains & Crowns: Identity Through Hair

Chains & Crowns: Identity Through Hair

Chains & Crowns, an exhibit by photographer Stephane Alexis explores hairstyles and their connection to the Black community.

Alexis took inspiration from the way the women in his life talked about their hair. Whether it was the money they were investing, how to achieve certain results or the difficulty that comes with maintaining certain styles. 

“My cousins, female friends, my mom, my aunt’s – we would sit around, and they would constantly talk about how challenging their hair was,” said Alexis. “The thing is that they love their hair but they also found that it was a lot to upkeep.” 

Box Braids by Stephane Alexis / The origins of these braids can be traced back to South Africa in 3500 BC. Its spin-off style resembles the women of Namibia and their Eembuvi braids, as well as the women of the Nile Valley and their chin-length bob braids from over 5 000 years ago.

So, he began researching different hairstyles and how they transferred over from Africa, how this information isn’t always properly conveyed and the amount of misinformation that exists on the topic.

“I started getting some ideas together and as I was collecting these hairstyles, I started discovering a lot of history that was involved,” he said. “I realized that it was much deeper. A lot of the issues that we are dealing with when it comes to self-esteem, oppression and misunderstandings of our identities stem from 500 B.C.E.” 

That research led to a photography project involving photos of everyone from his friends and family, to people from his church, a local salon and even strangers he met in the city. 

Bantu Knots by Stephane Alexis / Bantu Knots come from Africa and get their name from the word Bantu, which loosely translates as “people” in a variety of Bantu dialects across the continent.

Becoming a photographer 

Alexis is a Caribbean-Canadian artist based in Ottawa, ON. He holds a Diploma in Photographic Arts and Production from Ottawa’s School of the Photographic Arts (SPAO) and has exhibited his work at the Karsh Continuum 2022 exhibition.

His work stems from his personal experiences.

Using print, screens and projections, Alexis’ art becomes a tool to explore issues faced by the Black community as well as the world of people with special needs and family caregivers. Photos from his latest exhibit, Chains & Crowns will be on display at Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain as part of Art Souterrain.

Alexis got his first DSLR when he was 19 and became the documentarian of his friend group. 

Photography also became an opportunity to involve the special needs community which includes his brother. Alexis began volunteering at a children’s hospital, specifically with children with special needs.

“These people don’t always get the opportunity to get family portraits the way everybody else does,” he said. “It’s harder to navigate. Especially as families, because it’s a little more complicated.”

As he delved deeper into photography, he became interested in how it can be used to convey one subject in multiple ways, and how you can dive in and really see the nuances between each object or image that you’re looking at. 

Chains & Crowns

The name Chains & Crowns just made sense, Alexis said. 

“You can talk about chains in the form of slavery, but there’s also the bondage that we sometimes put on ourselves when it comes to these systemic things,” he said. “The history that gets passed along, that holds us in this place of insignificant sad times. My goal was to try and pull some of us out of that so we can see ourselves in a more beautiful light.”

He said that braids also resemble ropes, chains or bondage. 

“[Crowns are] something beautiful that we wear on our heads at all times,” he said. “And I want us to be able to look at ourselves as kings and queens. I want us to be able to look at ourselves as valuable people that contribute and add to the lives of the people around us.”

The “crowns” take centre stage as the artist only photographs the back of the subject’s heading and features images of bantu knots, braids, twists, and locs. Visitors can also read a small excerpt on the history of each style.

Alexis explained that, when it comes to pop culture or culture in general, there’s a lot of objectivity. 

“We gravitate towards style,” he said. “But we don’t really put an emphasis behind the people that brought those styles to us. So I wanted to really embody that in a way, and then translate that into a visual form.”

Hair is visually powerful

Shooting the images of just the back of the head allowed him to showcase the beauty of the hair – the variation in looks, textures and the way it cascades – without any distractions. He said he used the hairstyles as symbols of strength, culture, understanding of oneself and history that’s been passed down for generations.

He also took inspiration from his research and historical figures. Figures such as Madam C.J. Walker, he explained came from a time when the odds were against her, yet she was able to thrive and create an industry from the limited resources that she had.

“That’s why you kind of see these colours, piercing through these dark images,” he said. “It’s because we’ve been able to show ourselves in unique ways, despite our hardships and I think it goes beyond just the black community. As long as you’re able to stay persistent and endure and be resilient, you can come out on the other side and those powerful things inside of you will shine through.”

Visitors can see Chains & Crowns at the Pierre-François Ouellette art contemporain until May 14.

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