Hair is a global form of social communication. Among numerous social groups throughout Africa, hairstyling and hairdressing hold great cultural and aesthetic significance. Coiffures have been regarded as indicative of ethnic origin, gender and stages of life development – as well as simply fashion – and have been related to power, age, religion and politics. The transitory yet highly visible nature of hair ensures its suitability as a medium for personal and social expression. And it is not just the domain of women; elaborate hair-styling for men can be an equally important indicator of their place in society.
We have recently documented a particularly interesting set of images from Uan Amil, at Wadi Teshuinat in the Acacus Mountains, south-western Libya, which reflect the cultural significance of hair in African societies. The scenes depict groups of people engaged in a variety of communal social practices wearing elaborate coiffures (Fig. 1), together with some very discrete moments of personal hairdressing.
The image below (Fig. 2), which is part of a larger panel (Fig. 3), shows an intimate moment between two persons, an individual with an ornate coiffure washing or attending to the hair of another. In some African societies, a person’s choice of hairdresser is dictated by their relationship to them. It is most often the work of friends or family to whom you entrust your hair. In the hands of a stranger or adversary hair can be used as an ingredient in the production a powerful substance that could afflict its owner; such is the potency of hair. This image well conveys such intimacy.
The rock shelter of Uan Amil was discovered in 1957 by the Italian-Libyan Joint Archaeological Mission surveying in the Acacus and Messak regions of Libya. Excavations have indicated the shelter was in use over a long period, with at least three main occupational phases between the 8th and 4th millennium BP. Italian archaeologist Fabrizio Mori has dated these paintings to 6,000 years ago, while David Coulson has been more cautious and has suggested that the presence of a metal blade on the arrow head seen at the bottom of this image may indicate a more recent age. Notwithstanding the problems associated with the dating of rock art, the subject matter is intriguing. It has been suggested that today’s Wodaabe nomads of Niger resemble the people on these rock paintings: ‘the cattle look the same, as do the campsites with their calf-ropes, and the women’s hairstyles with the special bun on the forehead. The female hair bun is big and round like a globe.’ (Bovin, 2001:12).
The Wodaabe number around 125,000. As pastoral nomads they migrate often and over large geographical areas, keeping mahogany-coloured Zebu cattle which have a hump on their back and long horns, shaped like a lyre. As a cultural group they have attracted much anthropological attention because of their traditional values of beauty (in particular the male beauty pageant) which pervades their everyday lives and practices.
Wodaabe seldom wash their entire bodies mainly because of the scarcity of water. Water from wells is mainly used for drinking by humans and animals. Washing the body and clothes is less of a priority; and hair is hardly ever washed. When Wodaabe put rancid butter on their hair it is to make it soft and shiny and cleanse it of dust and lice. To them rancid butter gives a nice sweet smell (Bovin, 2011: 56). Fig. 2 shows a vessel sitting between the two individuals that may have served to hold rancid butter used in the preparation of the hair; in fact, treating the hair with butter is a widespread practice in African societies. In addition, Wodaabe never cut their hair; everybody (men and women alike) want to have hair as long as possible, as represented in Figs. 2 and 5. The ideal girl should have long, thick, black hair, enough to make a huge round bun on her forehead, while the ideal young male should have long, thick black hair to make braids to the shoulders.
A long, narrow face is also admired and this is enhanced by shaping the hair on top of the head, and also using an ostrich feather to elongate the face (Bovin, 2001:26). The painting in Fig. 4, also from Wadi Teshuinat, characterises this.
Interestingly, the coiffures in Figs. 1, 2 and 3 are light in colour and do not conform to the black ideal as indicated above. It has been suggested that this represents Caucasians with blonde hair. However, it may also be a visual strategy to emphasise the aesthetics of the coiffure. Hairstyles in African sculpture are often shown conceptually, rather than mimetically; idealising rather than copying exactly from contemporary hairdressing practices. In this respect representation follows artistic traditions as much as, or more than, it responds to ephemeral shifts in fashion.
The importance of hair styling and its importance in social practices are evident in Figs. 3 and 6 where hair-washing, hairstyling or hair preparation is an active element within more complex social and cultural activities. Fig. 3 has been interpreted as showing preparations for a wedding, while Fig. 5/6 is understood as a scene of supplication, with people visiting a man in a curved shelter; it may even be a representation of the cave. In addition, the C-shaped feature has been suggested to be a coiled snake and the figure sits between the head and tail. It may seem incongruous to have hair preparation scenes represented within a tableau representing a wedding or ceremonial meeting, but may say something more about the nature of representation. In each case, these may represent a conceptual depiction of time and space. These activities are not ones that occur concurrently temporally and spatially, but rather represent an assemblage of discrete moments that contribute to each ceremony in its entirety.
The Wodaabe invest vast amounts of time and resources in their outward appearance and the need to beautify and refine. ‘Art’ is not just something that is aesthetically pleasing; it is a necessity of life, a necessity that must be exhibited. While there are likely to be a variety of complex social, economic and cultural motivations, that necessity is possibly additionally driven or fuelled by a seemingly desolate, unadorned, irregular landscape. The importance lies in distinguishing oneself as a cultural being rather than the ‘uncultured other’, such as an animal; and hair is an apposite medium by which to make this nature/culture distinction. Hair care in African societies is unmistakably aesthetic in its aspirations as it gets transferred into other artistic mediums, and the divide between nature and culture is thoroughly and intentionally in play. To transform hair is to transform nature, and is truly an artistic discipline.