An art exhibit focused on Black hair has been to Atlanta, Austin, Texas; the Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia area, Los Angeles and by the end of summer 2022, Brooklyn.
Created by friends Alisha Brooks and Elizabeth Austin-Davis to make Black people feel accepted, The Black Hair Experience features hairdryers, salon chairs as well as larger-than-life hair clips and ponytail holders Black girls still rock on the playground today.
The duo said one of the hardest parts of pulling the museum together was the pushback from some landlords who didn’t want to rent spaces to them despite them having the funds.
According to Austin-Davis and Brooks, three landlords said their demographic was not in the area, they weren’t going to be successful and sometimes, ignored them altogether. The pair said it happened in every city they tried to take the museum to, including Atlanta and the District of Columbia area.
“That is definitely an Achilles heel in our business as we want to further this message of ‘All Black hair is beautiful’ in different markets,” Austin-Davis said.
Legislation:Banning ethnic hairstyles ‘upholds this notion of white supremacy.’
Austin-Davis and Brooks have also faced challenges individually, sharing similar hair journeys. They grew up with relaxed hair, or hair that has been chemically straightened, they told USA TODAY.
The business partners met in college, eventually becoming roomies and getting corporate jobs together in finance. Their latest collaboration started in 2019.
Austin-Davis, a wedding photographer now based in Atlanta, said she was working on a photography project on Black hair.
“As a wedding photographer, I was navigating spaces where I was the only Black woman and just feeling insecure about my hair and wanting to really explore that,” she said.
Brooks had just returned from New York, an epicenter for museums, so the pair decided to create their own selfie museum for Black hair using real-life experiences. They started with a museum in Atlanta and have since grown.
Their newest stop, they said, will be in Brooklyn, although they haven’t chosen a space yet.
The pair went natural around the same time.
Brooks big chopped: one day she had long, relaxed hair, and the next, she cut it off and had “the teeniest TWA” or teeny weeny afro, she said.
Switching from relaxed, straight hair to natural hair in the workplace wasn’t easy for them so they leaned on each other.
“We used to try to relax our hair and wear it straight to make sure we were kind of fitting in and not shaking things up,” Brooks said.
The selfie museum, they said, is a way for them to explore their own experiences and stories from other Black people who have felt insecure about their hair.
Austin-Davis’ hair is coarse, and she relaxed it up until college. She was in St. Louis one summer with Brooks when she decided to part with her relaxed hair. She recalls being overwhelmed with hair products, unsure of which one was best for her hair. It hasn’t been easy, but she’s enjoying the journey.
“I can wear my hair any way that I want,” she said. “I can have a wig on. I can have braids. I can wear it straight and just be happy no matter what decision I make with my hair.”
The women used these experiences to create their selfie museum and help Black people feel like there is a space where they can feel seen and important. For some attendees, the museum is like a walk down memory lane, complete with products they haven’t seen since their childhoods.
Black beauty brands:30 Black-owned beauty brands you may not have heard of yet
What to expect at The Black Hair Experience
One area is set up to look like a store with bottles, an embodiment of the countless shampoos, conditioners, creams and gels Black people peruse as they try to care for their curls.
“That is an experience in itself, whether you get your hair done in the kitchen growing up because I know that has been a part of a lot of our experiences, or getting your hair done in the living room,” Brooks said.
There’s even a swing made out of braided hair, as well as one in LA made out of locks.
Brooks, a graphic designer, carefully chose the colors in the exhibit as well.
“We have what we call our Hue Wall, which is our Black Hair Experience wall,” Brooks said. “We do it in different shades of brown because we want to be true to celebrating our skin tones, our complexions and how beautiful it is when it all comes together.”
Each experience has a shop where people can buy from Black entrepreneurs. They said they plan to open a storefront in the National Harbor area near the district this summer.
The best part of The Black Hair Experience, they said, is hearing how happy it makes people feel, including their own daughters.
“We didn’t have spaces like this growing up,” Brooks said. “Knowing that this space is being created in celebration and in light and love of us and our experiences really is the highlight of it all.”