artist interview: kione grandison
Date: November 2016
The backroom of a London hairdresser’s might not be where you’d expect to find a fine art exhibition but it is potentially the most fitting spot to showcase the work of young British-Jamaican artist Kione Grandison, who, along with two Wimbledon College of Art cohorts, exhibited at the Michael Wray Hairdressing studio in April.
In the middle of the white-walled back room, a wire installation casts a slow-moving shadow across the room. The wire sculpture is a stylised depiction of two women, at the lips-just-touched moment before a kiss. Each is crowned with a working of synthetic hair in braids and adorned with cowries and beads- one with a pink rat-tail comb for ornamentation.The wire and hair installation hangs adjacent to Kione’s paintings and collages on the wall at Michael Wray, a potent overhang of their subject matter.
Kione is fascinated by Black/Afro hair culture and her own gorgeous waist-length curls have served her as often as the canvas as a stage for expression. She considers the traditional depictions of hair used at black hairdressers an art form: the painted African barbershop images, the hairstyle ‘catalogue’ posters along the walls and the elaborate, architectural images of Afro weaves and braids. Hair culture has served as Kione’s standpoint for interrogating discourses on social projections of black identities.
After returning from her break to Portland, Jamaica, Kione sat down to talk to ThandieKay about her work:
OA When did your fascination with black hairstyling and hairdresser images begin?
KG I guess from a young age. A big part of my life was focused around having my hair done. I would scream when my mum styled it and the hairdressers would never know what to do with it. I had so much! I ended up just growing it because I couldn’t find a hairdresser to care for it properly. I learned to do my own hair at quite a young age. A big part of it was experimental and I became fascinated with hair, what it could do and what I could do with it. At college, my tutor directed my work towards my interest in hair, just to help give me a starting point. It was not even necessarily black hair back then. At University, my interests honed on to black hair publications and hairstyling- the intricacy and skill- and I found myself naturally making work focused around hair. I also work in the beauty industry as a nail artist, so hair provides me with a related creative outlet.
OA What do you think that these images denote about black beauty?
KG I think it depends on what kind of images you look at. The work of someone like J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, for example, is particular. He was a Nigerian photographer who depicted African hairstyles as artwork. His photographs are a great window into African traditional culture. They reveal an ideology of ‘black beauty’ before a western influence, which I think is informative and positive. Then, we have more modern forms of advertising for black hair where, sadly, the traditional practice of African hairstyling is superseded by western hair culture. It’s like the ‘culture’ has been flushed away or taken over by a new beauty ideal that’s much more western, much less organic. Aesthetically, I am inspired by the modern posters and publications but I wish the beauty industry promoted natural hair and darker skin. I don’t understand why so many of these posters depict black women with silky straight weaves. There are no links between the old and new imagery and you rarely find images of the tribal hairstyles anymore. Skin bleaching is commonly practised – dancehall artist Vybz Kartel even has his own brand of bleach. We should be celebrating brown skin and Afro hairstyles, not whitewashing them! Obviously, I mostly paint black women and hair is often the focus of my work but I think that there’s so much more to black identity than hair. Hair is a small element that can be symbolic and political. The stylised aesthetic of the posters is just a way of communicating wider ideas. It’s a trope.
OA You’ve also recently been inspired by male hairstyles and headdresses of African communities like the male Kenyan Samburu warriors. What appeals to you about them?
KG I just think they’re beautiful- culturally and historically. It is important to look back and to look laterally at other cultures. I take elements from them because I think just think they’re beautiful.
OA So would you say there is an extent to which your interests are genderless?
KG I’m interested in empowering black women with my work. But, I do also think that the consequences of the ‘western ideal’ on black women have not been lost on black men. When you consider western influences on black beauty you see that this also includes men. The images of black men with perms in the 80s and 90s… its more than just the fashion of a time. We need to ask why black men felt the impulse to do something like that. It's inorganic and I think it’s a symptom of the same pressures that have curtailed black women and Afro beauty.
OA What’s your opinion of cultural appropriation?
KG I have white friends who wear braids and I am not at all offended by it because, in the end, it is just a hair. But I think that there is a line between flattery and theft. And what makes the difference, in terms of crossing that line, is informing yourself. I was sitting on the beach in Negril, Jamaica a few weeks ago and there was a group of white American girls who all took turns to get their hair braided in different styles. I overheard one of them say, ‘I might just get a full head of Cain-rows. My boyfriend would love that, he likes black girls’. That they were getting braids was not the issue. I was uneasy about the idea that she believed she could purchase an element of blackness for herself as if the hair was enough to allow her to masquerade black identity.
OA What project that you’ve done would you say is dearest to you and why?
KG I do have some pieces that I would never want to sell. My first ever collage was a piece of wood that essentially took me half an hour. I took it in to show my tutor and he loved it and urged me to do more of them. It is one of my favourite because it led on to a lot of my other work. My hair and wire sculpture is also a favourite. I think I tend to love my experimental pieces most.
OA Do you have any influences artistically?
KG Wangechi Mutu was the first African-American artist I was into. I was really inspired by her collages. I saw Ellen Gallagher’s work at the Tate a couple years back. She did these huge pieces where she takes photocopied images of black women and plasters absurd yellow wigs on them which I read as a comment on the strangeness of the unprecedented influence of the West in shaping black beauty ideals. I have also been inspired by Meschac Gaba’s conceptual wigs. Of course, J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, who I’ve already mentioned. Aesthetically, I am attracted to the work of Gaugin although I find his work uncomfortably close to black fetishism.
I do think that I have an eye of my own now so less and less I have to reference other artists or look at other work for inspiration.
OA And what about personally?
KG I have many strong and independent female figures in my family who are clear influences. But actually one of my greatest influences is my dad who introduced me to documentaries about black history and always told me how beautiful my hair was. He’d say to never cut it. I think because of him I never relaxed it. I learned to embrace my hair even though it was so difficult when I was young.
OA You worked on a hand-painted mural while you were in Jamaica. Tell us more about it.
KG I wanted to make sure I did a project while I was out there. I met someone who wanted the outside of her bar painted so I decided to take it on. In Port Antonio, the commercial world is so amazing and artistic. The bars and shops are colourful and covered in paintings. All the advertising is hand-painted and underneath every work, you’ll find the artists name and number. It’s very different to here in England, where everything is printed and mass produced. Over there, it’s personal. It was a strange, amusing experience because I had an audience while I was working on it. Everyone gathered round to watch the woman that was painting. It’s not something they see often. The art industry there is dominated by men and I would get artists who’d painted other bars in the area come up to me and try to give me advice because my style is also so different from theirs. Luckily I am confident in my work so it was kind of amusing.