It’s tempting to look at the stark walls, worn easel, and well-organized oil paints in Traci Turner’s home studio and conclude that a fairly conventional painting is about to take place. However, Turner’s work is anything but.
Using a mixture of impressionistic and expressionistic techniques perfected by artists—mostly European men—beginning in the late 1880s, Turner appropriates well-worn territory to tell the story of black women’s hair. Her nod to expressionism employs the use of bright, sometimes clashing colors to set an emotional tone for the portrait. The quick, loose dots of color that depict the ever-changing light that impressionists sought after are effective in creating movement and immediacy in her paintings.
“People say, ’There’s really nothing new you can do with portraiture—anything you can say has already been said,’” said Turner. “But I don’t think that’s true. … The people are different.”
Turner’s people are different. Not just because they are unique individuals in real life or the fact that they are represented in such a stylized manner. The real feature that sets these women apart is the hair on their heads. Each piece in her upcoming “Hair” series portrays a black woman who does not chemically straighten her hair. This transition to natural hair is one that many women make and one the artist has made herself.
“I have seen other artists enter the fold with their interpretation [of natural hair], but it feels good to be able to answer that call too, and I hope that other people can be inspired,” she said. “Painting black women’s natural hair is a big deal for me specifically because for so long we’ve been told that it’s not beautiful.”
The controversy in the way that natural, black hair is depicted and received in our society is hardly a new topic. From performance pieces such as Antonia Opiah’s “You Can Touch My Hair” to exhibits like Mickalene Thomas’ Hair Portraits and Michael July’s Afros: a Celebration of Natural Hair, artwork that exposes and embraces the natural texture of black people’s hair gives voice to the cultural questions, social customs and glaring ignorance that still surrounds something as seemingly simple as hair.
Adding images of natural hair to a world that is already saturated with messages that restrict and police African-American bodies—both from within and without—is only a good thing. And while Turner’s paintings focus primarily on the aesthetic beauty of natural hair, the artist acknowledges the deeply painful and personal underpinnings of her subject matter. “To make that transition [to natural hair] for people can be very hard, it’s a very psychological thing, and not too many people understand that. It comes from the media, but it also comes from our families. I hope what I’m doing here can connect with little girls or other people who are natural or thinking about it.”
In many ways, Turner’s paintings accomplish the radical shift in perception that the European men of the late 19th century employed for their paintings of bucolic landscapes, setting suns and vibrant cafes. But instead of changing the way we see haystacks, Tuner shines a light on our own perception of natural hair—and it is pretty revealing.