-Straight talking about hair

Selina Thompson for her Dark & Lovely project at Union 105.
Selina Thompson for her Dark & Lovely project at Union 105.

Hair is hugely important in the lives of black women, says Selina Thompson, who weaved an entire show out of her thoughts on the subject.

Audiences to Dark & Lovely at the Crucible Studio next week will be invited into her 7ft Tumbleweave, a shelter built from real hair, which forms the set for her performance.

It’s rare to find a role model in dreads, braids or an Afro

Based on recorded interviews in hair salons with customers and hairdressers, along with music and written text Dark & Lovely explores and celebrates black hair and what it says about being black, British and female in the UK today.

“I think hair has a huge amount of significance at many different levels. It can be a bonding experience and there’s a lot of tradition of Afro hairstyles,” says Selina. “It’s absolutely laden with political, social and historical connotations.

“Currently £5.2m is spent on hair in this country and 80 per cent of that comes from black women (while the black population is less than 3 per cent overall).”

Much of it is spent on weaves and relaxers – the chemical method of straightening hair. “I was 12 or 13 when I was given relaxers and it’s a regular cultural process but it can go wrong – with burns to the scalp and so on. Britain’s first female millionaire made her money from styling and relaxing products.”

Selina spoke to women about their experience of hair from childhood to the present day and their feelings about the perception that “good hair is easy to manage and silky and bad hair is coarse and tangled and doesn’t stay straight.

“It’s still rare to find role models. Michelle Obama, Beyonce, Rihanna, they’ve all got straight hair. You don’t see anyone in dreads or braids or in an Afro. Afro hair is something you had as a child and you are supposed to feel sexier and more confident with straightened hair.”

Where did the idea for the Tumbleweave come from? “At the end of the research process I was looking for a coherent entity in which to present the show. I knew I wanted to build something out of hair and something theatrical.”

The hair came from a supplier and was woven into a chicken wire on a frame.

Part of the concept, she says, was having somewhere to hide. “All of this stuff about hair is taboo. There have been articles about how black women should stop talking about hair and move on and I am aware of these women voicing these views.

“But I wanted to talk about how I felt with an Afro or with a wig on. I wanted to create something I could pop out of.”

Dark & Lovely was first performed in Chapeltown, Leeds in a disused barber’s shop for a weeklong sell-out run. 

It is the latest autobiographical piece by the Birmingham-born artist and performer based in Leeds and follows Chewing the Fat exploring the body and control around food.

Next year she plans a show called Salt based on a journey to the Caribbean on a cargo boat.

Dark & Lovely is at the Crucible Studio, Wednesday to Saturday.