From Root, Ends, to Edges:The Art of Hair Braiding // Amanda Préval
by Laurène Southe
Amanda Préval is a multidisciplinary artist with a deep interest in the historical context of Black hair and hair extensions. Born in Quebec, Amanda went through a unique journey of self-discovery & identity exploration, further amplifying their creative expression which zeroes in on the performativity of the body and the hyper-visibility of Black people. Amanda is able to convey a captivating approach to the artistry that questions the purpose of everyday objects and their human presence.
For those who do not know you yet; who is Amanda Préval?
Amanda Préval is an artist. I have a huge affinity for the body and how it can be used as an exploration ground to question either its identity or its significance in inner settings. I’d like to think of the body as a means of expression to connect with Black identity, and through incorporating objects of cultural significance like hair extensions, also as a means of expressing one’s blackness in a post-millennial era.
We use extensions the same way we use clothing as a way to express oneself and reveal one’s identity. Furthermore, I think about the body, but also objects and how they are a result of human presence and the trace of handwork. I am interested in the concept of braiding and how synthetic braids are human objects themselves. I also enjoy creating abstract forms with the synthetic hair I use.
It’s the process of finding these objects, going to beauty supply stores, and experiencing different textures and shapes that are meant for different hair hairstyles. I like that diversity, and for me, it has always inspired my artistic practice.
L: Exploration 1 (cercle de cheveux tressés) (2021), synthetic hair, 9 x 57 cm. R: Exploration 2 (cercle de cheveux tressés et frisottis) (2020), synthetic hair, 63.5 x 45.8 cm
I have to admit this is probably the most sophisticated response I’ve received for such a generic question. Before we get into the nitty gritty, where are you from?
I’m from Quebec. More specifically, I’m from the Borough of St-Hubert in Longueuil. I’ve grown up in Quebec my whole life. I was born here, my parents are first-generation immigrants, and I consider myself to be the second and a half generation because my dad has been here since childhood, and therefore he had a bit of a different integration journey than my mom.
I’ve never been there in person, but I imagine Quebec has a majority white population compared to other areas. In your own words, how would you describe your upbringing?
My parents grew up with a lot of diversity around them, but once I came into the picture, I was raised in a predominantly white community. My whole life, I went to school being the only Black person in my class, let alone my year. I had experiences with microaggressions and just flat out racism. I’d say I had a weird relationship with my Caribbean side and my Black identity when I was younger. I had to actively deconstruct and work on myself as I got older.
I learned how to code-switch at a very young age. I would also get perms around that time and felt pressured to conceal my Black features. There’s this weird and awkward yet interesting phase you fall into when you’re surrounded by people who don’t understand your experience and don’t look like you — that was my experience.
When did you first interact with creative expression?
I have always been a shy kid who enjoyed drawing as an outlet for creation. Nowadays, my work is mainly sculptural and performance-based, but my earliest memory of creative moments would be going to parks and just finding leaves and branches and trying to play around with them. I remember playing with mud and creating sculptures like environmental micro-actions. I’d be very satisfied with these moments of creation— they were kind of meditative and mindless.
I’ve never tried to impersonate sculptures with mud, but I’m sure a number of creative minds can relate with that. In the first instant I took a look at your work, it was evident to me that hair extensions are a recurring theme. What role did hair extensions play in your childhood?
When I was very young, I always wanted extensions or box braid hairstyles, but for a long time, I didn’t have extensions, and it was mainly my mom who would braid my natural hair. I think most of my interest mirrored the social image when you would get your hair braided — the time that’s taken to sit down and have your braided was special to me. Also, sometimes, it is a bit difficult with the combing and pulling — the kind of pain you’d experience from your scalp.
It’s so intrinsic. Towards the last days of my teenage years, I got hair extensions, and I was deeply fascinated by the different ways to apply extensions, whether they were extensions with cornrows, box braids, or knotless styles. Around that time, I think crochet braids were really en vogue and seen as the most practical hair extension application. This is because it was a cornrow style, and you would attach hair parts and could have an afro, wavy hair, or braids — it’s so versatile. That’s what fascinated me a lot.
I studied visual arts for three years, and there was an assignment that required us to think about a sculpture that reflected the body and was meant to be worn. That was the first time I started exploring hair extensions as a way of creating a wearable. I knew I wanted to use the crochet technique to apply the hair extensions, but I did it on a metal piece that I created with the materials given to me. It was one of my main introductions to this practice that I enjoyed. This all occurred about six years ago — that’s when I began my main practice.
From what I am hearing, your time in school gave you a lot of beneficial creative aspects that are still in use to this day. In which ways did your studies in arts amplify and sharpen your creative process?
I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to have materials I could use to explore, in addition to doing research and having access to literature that spoke about issues I wanted to expand on in my work. I was also introduced to a lot of artists through my education. I remember the main artists I would research were Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson.
I can actually see the correlation with Kara Walker because while I indulged in your world, I thought to myself, “Who does this remind me of? Who does that remind me of?!” So thank you for saying this.
I feel like I was able to create a catalogue of artists that could already articulate what I was interested in.
I started reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, which explored the idea of the status of this invisible identity in a social space. Although I haven’t finished reading it, I was very interested in the concept of what to do when you’re in a society where your identity is deemed invisible and as a monolith. I was very into music around that time, and I would seek artists that sang about the Black identity, also in response to oppression.
You know the first artist that comes to mind when I review your work? Nina Simone.
Oh yeah! In a way, I see a lot of resonance because I researched a lot about Nina Simone, and I’ve seen across the media that she had such a unique approach to Black identity. I feel like she is a no-nonsense person. She has this ability to go into a grimmer, darker tone and for me, it’s super enticing and interesting to see how it developed. I enjoy going into more ambiguous, darker aesthetics in my work. I like to play with intrigue, and I feel like there’s this atmosphere around Nina Simone’s work also.
I think I just know one other artist who uses hair extensions in their practice. Walk us through your choice of expression; how does one stumble upon the use of hair in artistry?
I feel like hair has been used as a means to oppress Black people, but also, hair is a source of survival. I did some research and learned that during the slave trade, there were Maroon enslaved people that would hide grains of rice in their hair through braiding. Therefore, as soon as they landed on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean on American soil, where they were placed on plantations, they were able to have a means of sustenance when they fled outside of forced labor. When I came across that piece of information, I thought that hair is way more than just an aesthetic or a means of expression.
For me, it was deeply important to celebrate that aspect, and I feel like it is something that modern culture has brushed over. When you think about cultural appropriation and the hyper-capitalist way in which we treat hair, in a way, we lose that intrinsic, emancipatory value that hair has for Black people and within diasporic communities. Black people have been using hair as an art form for the longest, but it’s just that white culture has not recognized braiding and Black hair as a means of creative expression. I think I am trying to be that mediation vessel between the art world and Black culture, but at the same time, I don’t wish to place myself on a pedestal. At the end of the day, I’m just talking about my experience and my interests.
I’m quite speechless at this point because I was unaware of the plantation occurrence you just described. In your opinion, how do you think your work challenges the narratives around Black hair and Black women wearing hair extensions?
As a consequence of being assigned as female at birth, I grew up in girlhood. Today, I neither identify as a man nor a cis woman — I identify as non-binary. I’ve experienced the same double standards, inequalities, and negative remarks that a lot of Black women receive and have lived through pushbacks and responses from white peers towards my identity and how distant these people seem to be from my reality — mostly they would react to how I would dress; however, now my hair is in locs & that’s a whole other experience.
L: Strange Fruit (held) (2020), poplar tree wood and synthetic hair, 40.65 x 36.60 x 36.60
cm. R: Strange Fruit (worn).Images courtesy of Samuel Alie.
How it relates to my practice is that I allow people to have a wide perspective when coming across my work. I also open the interpretation to be ambiguous so other people can view my work and see something they can relate to. I remember exhibiting my work in a show & was approached by many people, but what struck me most were the different reactions between Black & non-Black viewers. A lot of Black people would say, “Oh! It’s so nice to see work with hair extensions because I used them throughout my childhood!” For them, it was a heart-warming piece that they could connect to. White viewers would be super interested in the work, but in them, it would invoke something along the lines of strange and unfamiliar. I had people telling me, “This is like a really scary shape. It’s almost unsettling.” I think there’s this North American disassociation with disembodiment being viewed as something creepy. In horror movies, for example, if you saw disembodied hair, it would evoke that same creepiness. For me, I always try to leave that interpretation open and let people project what they feel towards these different objects.
It [my work] is also a way to challenge prejudice. As a non-black person, do you see this as scary, and how does that relate to your view on Black people? This is an opportunity to reflect on how they interact with blackness and understand this underlying prejudice towards Black hair and hair extensions.
I appreciate your honesty and your openness to hear different perspectives. I do want us to go back to the inspirations you gathered — what are some of the references you came across while researching this particular subject?
It’s interesting because I would always answer Lorna Simpson, but recently, I came across two artists with a similar discourse around hair. One of the artists is named Karin Jones; she’s a Canadian artist as well. As an African-Canadian, she articulates her experience by putting a spotlight on African-Canadian history, not necessarily from the perspective of an immigrant but as a person of African descent. Her sculptures mainly use hair extensions, within the same approach as mine, in terms of imitating clothing. There’s this piece meant to imitate funeral dresses, entirely made out of hair pieces. Most of the time, she uses cotton flowers in her exhibitions, and it’s interesting because she mixes cotton stems with hair inside. There’s a deliberate association between hair and textiles that fascinated me and opened discourse on the use of hair as an extension of the body.
In that same aspect, there’s Yuni Kim Lang, an Asian-American artist originally from South Korea. She talks a lot about identity, her experience being raised in a different country, and therefore being the “third-culture kid.” Her experience mediating her home country is constructed through hair. I was interested in how she articulates her practice, not only concept-wise but also, visually — it’s so breathtaking.
I would say Karin Jones and Yuni Kim Lang are quite significant artists to me. I actually had the chance to meet Karin not long ago, and it was a heart-warming experience to talk about my practice with her.
Yes, I can really imagine that! Thank you for giving us a few more references significant to your work. Are there any plans you would like to share?
I’m in the process of showing my work in an exhibition called; Désordre d’un souvenir effrité/par la mobilité de son environnement. I am building a group exhibition in this gallery called Fait-Moi L’art in Montreal about bodies and objects, how bodies are reflected in the objects we use, and how objects are an imprint of our presence.
In May, I am building a group performance with two other artists in Montreal — Joliz Dela Peña and Nana Quinn. The performance is around hair and known rituals of shedding and molting, relating to different instances across our various experiences. They are mostly performance artists, and I might be the only one without much experience in performance, but what’s cool is that we’re all BIPOC.
Laurène Southe is a creative writer and freelance photographer based in Vienna, Austria of Congolese descent. Furthermore, her main practices are poetry, songwriting and essays; however, she happens to write articles as well. To this date, Laurène is the youngest member of the Vienna African Writers Club.