Photography: Amber Akaunu Photography: Niloo Sharifi

Filmmaker and artist Amber Akaunu talks about the sacred act of getting Afro hair done, a ritual captured in her work for BBC New Creatives.

“Going me nan’s” calls out a teenage girl as she closes the front door behind her and walks down the street. Arriving at her grandmother’s house, she changes into a pair of slippers, picks from a tray of potato snacks in the kitchen and moves into the warm hues of the living room where she greets her nan. The teenage girl places herself at the foot of her couch where her grandmother is sitting who begins to untie her hair, combing through a combination of water and oils. The scenes captured in the film is an intimate act that celebrates a central part of many black women’s lives.

Created in partnership with BBC New Creatives and Arts Council England, Afro Hair Rituals is part of a collection of short films showcasing the brightest talents in new female directors. It captures the bond within a Liverpool family shared between a teenage girl and her grandmother as she carefully proceeds to style her granddaughter’s afro hair – a process which can take a number of hours.

Created by local filmmaker, artist and illustrator AMBER AKAUNU, Afro Hair Rituals “was made with the intention of showing black women and girls just how beautiful their afro hair is,” she says. “To have this hair is to have a connection to a community and to a history, a bond and a relationship to the past and the present.”

Following the release of Afro Hair Rituals in late February, Akaunu is now looking towards the second phase of the project which involves an open call out to black women around the world to send in videos of their own Afro Hair Rituals/hair routine. The clips will be compiled to create Afro Hair Rituals Part II.

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Akaunu initially pitched the idea for the first film to BBC New Creatives on the basis of her interest in afro hair, notably Black women’s relationship with their hair – “especially black northern women, because we are such a minority here,” she adds. But, as the film underscores with its gentle nuance and intimate cinematography, the process compiled into the sub four-minute production goes beyond the tactile act on display. The resulting short film offers an insight to the sacredness of Afro hair and its embodiment of ancestry and a continuation of black culture.

“The sacredness is definitely a mixture of my personal feeling and tradition,” says Akaunu, speaking over the phone. “The aim of the film was to uplift and show black women how amazing their Afro hair is. I wanted to show it as a sacred ritual as it’s something that has been passed down for generations, practiced by ancestors hundreds of years ago who all went through the same process that the film displays.” The film, however, is not simply repurposing a historic account or recalling of nostalgia. The ritual, as she points out, is still firmly rooted in contemporary black culture. “Black people are still doing it today. We’re using the same techniques, some of the same products,” she continues. “I do a lot of my friends’ and family’s hair. It’s such a sacred moment where two people come together. You bond and grow together. It makes me feel more connected to history and the past.”

Where the film focuses on the positive celebration of the ritual, Akaunu notes there still remains a sensitivity surrounding Afro hair. The artist’s own experiences growing up in Liverpool featured consistent bullying. She recalls anxieties over wearing her hair out in her youth due to vocal discrimination among predominantly white peers. “A friend even went as far as saying she wouldn’t play with me while I had my hair out,” she adds. “Still today, we see people discriminated against for their hair. It still comes across as radical to perceive black hair as sacred and to love it despite what people think,” she explains. “But there are signs that people are wanting to embrace it more.”

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Akaunu continues: “There was a point in time where if you Googled beautiful hair, the results were a swathe of White women with long straight hair. Then if you typed in unprofessional hair, the results would show as black women with Afro hair. That’s still common today. Having Afro hair is seen as undesirable, not seen as beautiful, not seen as professional. The act of loving your hair is therefore radical.”

For added context, and a resource used in researching for Afro Hair Rituals, The Good Hair Study outlined in 2016 the ongoing discrimination black women faced due to their hair. Key findings from the study showed that one in five black (American) women felt social pressure to straighten their hair for work, while white (American) women, on average, showed explicit bias towards black women’s textured hair – which they rated as less beautiful and less professional than “smooth” hair.

In the intervening years since the study, there have been signs of “progress” says Akaunu. Solange’s 2016 album A Seat At The Table brought the sacredness and imbued regality of Afro hair closer towards the mainstream on the song Don’t Touch My Hair, featuring the lyrics “Don’t touch my hair/ When it’s the feelings that I wear/ Don’t touch my soul/ When it’s the rhythm I know/ Don’t touch my crown”. A book under the same name by Irish writer Emma Dabiri, a personal-cum-political take on the history of black people’s hair, has furthered the ubiquity of Afro hair celebration closer to home. Even at the Oscars, an institution which has lagged behind in representation and celebration of black filmmakers, Hair Love, a story about a father who has to do his daughter’s afro hair for the first time, took home the award this year for best animated short film. “In California”, Akaunu adds, “it’s now illegal to discriminate against people based on their hair. In the UK it’s generally a better time for discussion around race. I think it’s interesting time to discuss hair.”

"Having Afro hair is seen as undesirable, not seen as beautiful, not seen as professional. The act of loving your hair is therefore radical" Amber Akaunu

These discussions surrounding race and hair which Akaunu mentions have been platformed by her other creative outlet, ROOT-ed (revolution of our time). Created in collaboration with friend and former Liverpool Hope University art school classmate Fauziya Johnson, ROOT-ed zine was created in response to the lack of diversity on their course stemming from no lecturers of colour and a “distinct lack of [black] representation in the curriculum”, as the pair wrote in Bido Lito! in September of that year. The zine therefore provided a platform and safe space for artists and writers of colour based in the North West. The zine has since published 10 editions, with issue four dedicated to exploring hair.

“I feel both me and Fauziya have been received really well. A lot of people like ROOT-ed. A lot of people in the galleries in Liverpool have been open with us,” says Akaunu, commenting on the reception to the zine and the number of arts projects it has been involved in since its inception. However, the progression she notes isn’t at its end goal. “The galleries are welcoming, but I think that’s just with us, as I think we have a bit of a platform. There are so many more black artists in the city than me and Fauziya. I don’t see all of us getting the same opportunities. There’s still a lot more that the galleries can be doing, and there remains a bit of tokenism involved.”

Having initially run in print for its first nine issues, ROOT-ed has since transferred to online only. The pairing cite a drop in funding for the change, but the online realm for independent publishing has become a much busier sphere in lieu of the recent Covid-19 pandemic. Mentioning this, our conversation segues to the theme of their next issue, work. “We had it planned it in ages ago, but right now the notion of work feels even more important,” says Akaunu, as we inevitably begin to chat about the affects of the pandemic.

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“People are losing their jobs, or they’re happy to work in really dangerous conditions. It’s going to be quite a historic moment. I think it’s important to continue with that topic. Both me and Fauziya will be writing about our own experiences, but it’ll be a nice release.” She continues: “I think people are beginning to realise that the NHS, care workers, people who work in supermarkets and run the local shop, they’re all essential. Just recently, [the government] was having this conversation about only essential workers being allowed into the country. Well, all the people who work in the shops that are providing people with essentials while at home, the nurses, they’re all essential. I think it’s interesting that the pandemic has kicked in so soon after the discussion regarding what is an essential worker. I think this will change a lot of what society sees as essential.”

Looking at her own art in light of the current national measures, continuing practice seems far removed from the celebratory cultural documentation of Afro Hair Rituals. “I’m thinking of ideas, but I’m not actually making art,” she replies, as we wrap up our conversation. “I think it’s difficult to create in this headspace and climate. A lot of people right now are using are art as a distraction. That’s all I’m doing with the my apple pencil and iPad. Just to keeping myself distracted from encroaching thoughts of what I’ll do for my next piece.”

Afro Hair Rituals is available now on BBC iPlayer.
Submission guidelines from Afro Hair Rituals Part II can be found below.

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