Meet The Progressive Artist Raising Hairs

Photo by Nakeya Brown

Nakeya Brown talks hair politics, black identity, and Solange

Photographer Nakeya Brown is kind of a big deal on the internet, with viral photos all around Tumblr. She's known for her interpretation of the politics of black hair, examining how it relates to culture and identity—and on April 10, the 26-year-old photographer is taking her work to Brooklyn, with a solo exhibition titled “In Private Moments” at Five Myles

As we continue to see stories in the media about the respectability of black hair with regards to everyone from Michelle Obama to Zendaya Coleman, the subject is more relevant now than perhaps ever. “It’s always this thing like black hair is the face of black women," the artist tells us. 

Stepping into Brown's warehouse studio in Washington, D.C. feels like entering a portal into the contemporary artist’s mind. In one corner, huge scrolls of colored paper lean beside a table covered in stacks of books about black art, history, and literature. Recognizable props from some of her earlier works like hair extensions and plastic suitcases are piled on the floor, and photos from her latest projects in progress are spread out across the wall.

Get to know Nakeya Brown in this exclusive interview in the gallery, below. We talked about everything from her ultimate hair icon, Solange, to her biggest inspiration—her two-year-old daughter. 

Photo by Nakeya Brown

Brown's first project, "The Refutation of ‘Good Hair,'' was inspired by her daughter—a visual reaction to the frustrations that Brown felt in response to comments about the texture of Mia's hair after she was born. Brown compares the experience to what she saw happening to Blue Ivy. "Motherhood has really instilled this sense of needing to protect, not even just my little girl, but just women, girls of color. That’s really what my work is about; the work is really about being a place where these sorts of conversations about our experiences are allowed to take place, and you can feel validation in the work and connect with it," she explains. "I think that it’s important that we have artists who are doing that for people, specifically for black women." 

Brown takes the sense of commercialism associated with the packaging and selling of black femininity and black beauty and explores how it applies to black bodies. Lately, she has been impacted by man-made products that connect black women with hair culture. "I think that identity is not something that you just find in bodies, it’s also in objects and fabrics and materials," she says. Brown also pulls inspiration from the internet within articles and word play. She recently read a piece about black hair styles in the '90s and got stuck on the use of the word "upward" to describe the way black hair grows—something about the idea of black hair defying gravity moved her.

Photo by Nakeya Brown

In a way, every black girl has her own hair story—it's one broken piece in the puzzle that creates this idea of a universal black experience. Hair can be a highly sensitive topic of discussion, especially if the viewer's experience involves periods of struggle. "As black women, you’re getting hit from all sides, you’re getting hit from your own and you’re getting hit from what’s outside so my need to protect through my work really comes from all of these experiences in our lives," she says. Brown refers to her story as a "hair journey" and describes it as mostly positive. She has experimented with every style from perms to weaves to microbraids to twists to pixie cuts. "I got my first perm at a very young age, I think I had to be six or something like that. Moms started them young back in the ‘90s," she laughs. "So literally from six to 21, I was perming my hair. I was cool with the perm for the most part up until my mid-20s." 

On wearing weaves in high school, Brown reflects on the concept of graduating into a new style. "It was like passing into womanhood so there was a lot of pride in being able to wear a weave because it’s like 'I’m older now, I’m more womanly now,'" she says. After years of this routine, Brown realized that others were influencing her to resent the presence of her natural hair, encouraging her to cover it up rather than embrace it. Eventually, she decided to free herself of these anxieties by chopping off her hair completely. "I love Solange, and she had cut her hair off too and I was like 'My hair is already half way here, I should just go for it'," she said. "For the most part, I don’t regret any of it because all of it has formulated and shaped, like now I have this pool of experiences where I can really use that to express myself and make work. That’s something that’s really special I think."

Photo by Nakeya Brown

This weekend, Brown will present her three separate photographic projects, “The Refutation of ‘Good Hair,’” “Hair Stories Untold,” and “if nostalgia were colored brown” in a solo exhibit titled "In Private Moments." Additionally, she built a small installation piece for the opening with pieces of Princess Yaki No. 1 hair hanging across a line. Brown's concept for the exhibit stemmed from an interview that she did with Black Girls Talking a few months ago. "They brought up this concept of 'the secret lives of black girls' and that was something I really liked, and I really thought that, 'Yeah, there is this super-secret life that we all do and it’s really centered around our hair,'" she says. The  notion builds off of the hair rituals that women of color partake in within the privacy of their own homes.

While having an exhibit opening is certainly an accomplishment in itself, Brown actually gets more personal satisfaction from the feedback she receives from people regarding how her work has touched them. Right now, "Hair Stories Untold" is on display in London, and Brown wants her work to continue to travel across the globe. For her, global affirmation is proof that the work she creates lives beyond her. "This work has a life of its own and I feel like for me, that is very rewarding and that shows a certain level of the work’s potency and its success," she says. "I really want this work to be a sight for conversations and an agent on behalf of our experiences and our struggles."

Photo by Nakeya Brown

Brown has already had multiple art exhibits and is actively pursuing a master's degree in photography at George Washington University—yet she remains humble. The way she sees it, chasing her passion this way gives her even more time to fully master it and navigate a career path. "I figured out I wanted to do [photography] late, I felt like I wanted more, and school really allows for the time," she said. "That’s the luxury of going to school, you really get time, uninterrupted time to focus on something, study it and really immerse yourself in it."

Beyond crossing the MFA off her bucket list, Brown also hinted at an interest in teaching photography. "The work there is something to be learned, there’s so much content loaded within it, so much of a history and a dialogue that can be created around the work that I realized that what I was doing in a way was teaching with words and really trying to connect with people," she said. "I feel like education is a really rewarding path to go down in terms of being able to give back and then also being able to satisfy my own needs." After this exhibit, Brown will be hosting a photo workshop called "Hair Traits" where she will teach girls from the ages of 16 to 18 about the basics of photography and shooting portraits.