In her understated performance art piece Come Clean, Holly Bass manages to elicit tremendous personal responses. Her piece is simple and clear in purpose: ask two or more strangers to participate in washing her hair. As the process unfolds she asks questions and gets to know her helpers, allowing both them and the audience to settle into the process. Audience members are welcome to speak to Bass and to each other, allowing an open exchange of emotions and ideas which makes this piece ever more poignant.
Bass, a black woman, has hair much different from mine in texture and behavior. My hair is straight, smooth, and falls flat at the earliest opportunity. Bass’s hair is short and coarse, and when she greeted the audience at the Athenaeum performance I saw on Sunday, June 16, it was standing out in a bit of a tousled Afro. It’s that ability to defy gravity that my hair does not have. It can frizz, it can break, it can dry out and become coarse upon occasion, but it has never stood up against gravity.
As the first volunteer, a gentle black man (who, as it turned out, has several daughters), washed her hair, I most noted her hair’s reluctance to take up water. The water rolled off her hair at first, splashing into the small basin at the ground, barely wetting her locks. As more and more water was added her hair did dampen, but even after the shampoo and rinse it dried so quickly because it didn’t retain the water. Bass used plain shampoo and allowed her volunteer to choose some scents to put in it for the washing. I thought I would take a hint from this and look for a way to do the same thing the next time I have to purchase shampoo. It smelled lovely, and seemed much better for hair than the stuff that’s marketed to white girls like me.
The next step was oiling. Bass instructed the second volunteer (a woman) to pick some oil and rub it on her scalp, at the roots of her hair. It looked like a wonderful massage, and instantly brought up the semiotic of mother and daughter. Even more so than the shampooing, the hair oiling looked like an intimate activity, one usually only done in the home by family. This made it so meaningful for Bass to share the ritual in front of us, and with us by asking the audience to participate. The final step was braiding, where a young male cellist stepped in and wowed the black ladies in the audience with his nimble fingers. Bass sectioned her hair, showed him how to comb it from the ends inward, and twisted two halves of strands together until the very ends of her hair were wound tightly. When she let go, her hair stayed put, which is practically a feat of magic to someone with my hair’s consistency. I can wind all day long, but the minute I let go, my hair unravels.
Something else interestingly different is the way her hair sheds. As she combed, and later twisted, some hair came out in black clumps. It looked like fuzz was coming off of her head, or clumps of fur in a way. When my hair falls out it comes out in long strands that can be separated quite easily even if they come off together. I found myself fascinated by these differences, some I could have reasoned or already knew about and others I would have had no way to understand without this performance piece. A black woman present confided in Bass that her performances elicited huge ranges of emotions, from love to anger to disgust and even happiness, and I found I experienced a similar journey. It didn’t matter what color you were, or what kind of hair you had. Bass was making public a typically private ritual, and this kinds of performance naturally brings up emotions.
I remembered my mother and father washing me and my sisters as kids, gently washing baby shampoo from our hair. I remember my middle sister crying because of her tender head if you didn’t comb her hair from the ends inward, like Bass combed her hair. I remember my mother teaching me how to french braid, and meticulously doing my hair for school when I asked really nicely. The black women mentioned that, unlike white girls, they never played with each others’ hair since it was so hard for their mothers to do. I realize this is a stereotype about white girls, and so I thought about it in relation to my own life. I had difficulty remembering many times I’d played with other girls’ hair and even less times anyone but my mother doing mine. I am sure everyone has a different story, but at least for my life, I only did hair if someone wanted me to do it for a special occasion, just like a hair salon and not like a friend playing with another friend’s hair.
The performance and conversation gave me the opportunity to learn not only about what goes into a black woman’s hair but what thoughts and feelings they have about their hair, especially in relation to hair like mine. I came away thinking about how much we had in common, and how the ritual means the same thing to both ethnic groups even if the steps differ due to hair quality. I also think all women struggle with what it means to be themselves in the face of our society telling them exactly what is beauty. None of us have the ideal anything, because what is that really? It’s a photoshopped image of a girl who has been completely remodeled out of her original self. I heard encouraging things during the performance, like affirmations of beauty in diversity, and of acceptance of one’s own hair quality, color, and behavior. I am encouraged by artists such as Bass stepping up and speaking out, making a place for her experience and bringing it to the forefront of consciousness.