Insta-friendly exhibit celebrates the beauty of black hair

The Black Hair Experience is a celebration — a chance to revel in the ever-expanding community and rituals formed around black hair. You know, sitting in between your mama’s legs as she detangles your hair and gives you a new style, cozying up under the salon dryer — maybe for a little too long — with a Black women’s magazine, the extra pep in your step after a fresh press and curl, and the universe of treatments, protective styles and adornments that resonate with you at different points of your hair journey.

The interactive selfie museum, which currently has locations in Atlanta; Washington, DC; Austin, Texas; and Los Angeles, was created by friends and fellow artists Elizabeth Austin-Davisa photographer from Ohio, andAlisha Brooks, a visual artist from Kansas City, Mo. The two crafted the exhibit by drawing from familiar and cherished hair experiences from their own lives, broader community and the pop culture canon.

When arriving at the former Forever 21 space housing the pop-up at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, I was greeted by the manager, Eryn, who donned one of the signature “Black Hair Been Poppin’” shirts, and proceeded to give a friendly rundown of the rules, asking that guests treat the exhibit like “grandma’s house.” The energy was laid-back and warm, with a mix of ’90s and early 2000s classics and present-day bangers — tracks from Jazmine Sullivan’s acclaimed “Heaux Tales” album and Wizkid and Tem’s hit song “Essence” flowed through the space as visitors captured moments in installations: laughter in the 360 ​​photo booth, an encouragement “yesss, girl!” as a friend group took turns posing in a set plastered with the women of Black Hollywood fronting magazine covers, a woman taking pics in a living room installation with framed sitcom families and excitedly noticing the OG Aunt Viv (played by Janet Hubert) in the “ Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” photo.

Two women enjoy a hair product installation at the Black Hair Experience pop-up location at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.

(The Black Hair Experience)

“I’ve been here since before the Target on Rodeo, when it used to be a Fedco. Baldwin Hills area is my roots so I was like, I’ve gotta be a part of this,” said Farrin Bailey, a Baldwin Hills native and Black Hair Experience team member who grew up immersed in Black hair culture, thanks to her mother, who worked as a hair stylist.

“It was ingrained in me from Day One to take pride in your hair because it is beautiful,” said Bailey, reminiscing on listening in salon talk among the grown women and other fond salon memories. “My mom would give me pieces of hair to braid with my Barbies and the first style I learned was the French roll — my Barbies had French rolls with the leftover hairspray.” When hearing this, a huge smile and emphatic “Ahh, that is iconic!” leaps from my lips.

Part of the allure of the Black Hair Experience is how well-suited it is for social media. I found out about the traveling exhibit while browsing Instagram and soon I was tumbling down an enthralling rabbit hole of pictures. Somewhere between a playpen filled with neon hair rollers and a beauty supply installation with Just For Me relaxer, multi-textured black/blond/wine-red units and an array of products such as pink lotion and copper red hair dye (think: Faith Evans’ “Love Like This” era), I decided I had to visit ASAP — and that’s no coincidence.

Creators Austin-Davis and Brooks understand the power of an image; They made connecting with millennials and Gen-Z and dreaming up social media-friendly installations we’d be eager to experience and share online a major priority. This would help further a core goal of the duo to uplift and affirm Black hair in its many textures and forms.

Elizabeth Austin-Davis and Alisha Brooks

Elizabeth Austin-Davis, left, and Alisha Brooks are the creators of the Black Hair Experience pop-up museum.

(The Black Hair Experience)

After getting a glimpse of the LA exhibit from someone she followed on Instagram, San Diego native DeJaneé Shanklin, who created the community self-care platform@GoddessTlk, knew she had to come through for a visit with her bestie. “This one is for us — it empowers us, it celebrates us. I feel like a mini superstar. This must be how Beyoncé felt on the ‘Bills, Bills, Bills’ set,” Shanklin said during her visit. “Every exhibit is colorful. I love it. I feel beautiful, I feel like this is my safe space. It’s giving queen vibes.”

When I ask Shanklin if there’s any special significance behind her current knotless box braids with colorful beading at the end, I’m reminded of the intention that can be at the heart of a hairstyle. The beads reflect the seven chakras, Shanklin explained. “Our chakras are the energy centers of our bodies so the beads were symbolic in attracting alignment and ascension to my life.”

As Black mothers who are keenly aware of the centuries-long systemic and interpersonal discrimination around black hair (egwork discrimination,texturism), it was important for Brooks and Austin-Davis to create a space where Black women and Black girls could see themselves reflected with love, Brooks said. Now, when visitors soak up the nostalgia-filled activations centering and created by people in their community, hopefully they feel empowered to bring their own artistic visions to life, be it an exhibit, curating an event or exploring art in another medium they connect with .

“We have a community outreach program that is a part of every single experience that we’ve opened,” said Austin-Davis of their We Care mentoring program, which aims to amplify the positive and talk through negative stereotypes kids may receive through the media when it comes to their hair. “We have workshops where we bring in young girls and we speak to them about fostering relationships with each other, friendships, self-love and the journey that they are on with their hair.”

The mentorship paired with the refreshing approach to celebrating Black hair is helping more girls and women embrace the hair rituals and cultural styles that may feel others in certain environments. One such treasured ritual is Austin-Davis’ quality time doing beads on her daughter’s hair. That ritual, she says, has been amazing: “She’s 5 and watching her clink around with her beads and just her having that moment — I when I was a little girl having remember that moment, so that has been something I’ve loved doing with her.”

For Brooks, maintaining the Sunday tradition of “hair day” she observed as a child with her own daughter now is a special full-circle moment. “[Every Sunday], that’s our time to talk and go through what her hair’s going to look like for the week,” Brooks shared. “When I’m taking down her hair from the previous week we’re talking and sometimes when she’s getting it shampooed and conditioned, we may be playing music. Sometimes as I’m actually styling her hair for the coming week, we’re watching a show, whatever she’s into at the moment, just so that I can stay in tune with what she’s interested in and make commentary about it. So we put all [of those things] together.”

San Diego native Ania Boyd said her decision to visit the Black Hair Experience was all about supporting fellow Black women. “We’re having a ball. I feel so elated to be here just knowing we’re celebrating ourselves. It fills my heart. We deserve that. Give Black women their flowers!”

Two women pose in a hair-drying installation.

Two women pose in the hair-drying installation at the Black Hair Experience.

(The Black Hair Experience)

The retail portion of the experience is open to everyone and does not require a paid ticket. Visitors can peruse the curated selection of items by Black-owned businesses, alongside the exhibit’s original merchandise, which features hair and wellness products, a Black hair coloring book, candles, earrings and more. Each section of the retail area includes a photo and mini bio of the business owners to give visitors a feel for who their purchases are supporting.

I ended up leaving with a double-sided edge brush (if you don’t invest in your edges now, then when?), SPF 45 sunscreen from Black Girl Sunscreen, shirts with affirming hair messages, a cute detangling shower comb, and goodies From the current featured exhibit sponsor, Cantu, a swag bag that visitors can purchase separately or with a VIP ticket.

There were so many personal highlights from my visit to the Black Hair Experience, but my favorite was getting to share in the communal joy, ease and comfort that I and other Black women felt. I saved the tender reminder of the shared beauty and precious history that has always been a part of our hair — plus the Jamaican patties, ginger beer and cream soda I got a few feet from the exit — as I left.

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