Historically, good art has been difficult to define; but rarely is it polite, complicated or without a political stance. Judging by these standards, un-ruly.com has certainly produced art.
What began as an idea spurred on by the rhetoric surrounding the "Can I touch your hair" comments many women with natural hair encounter, ended up as a living New York City conversation piece this past weekend. In an effort to bring light to the controversy, un-ruly.com set up a one-weekend-only exhibit entitled "You Can Touch My Hair."
Much as its name suggests, the exhibit, located in Bryant Park, allowed passers-by the opportunity to touch natural hair in an atmosphere without bias. But, better than the opportunity to touch natural hair was the conversation sparked by the exhibit amongst the natural hair community because as we all know, rarely does such a large, passionate and engaged community completely agree.
It is what makes the natural hair community so vibrant and such a resounding force in the world. It is a community that speaks up for beauty, for self and for other. And, when it comes to other people's hands in anyone's natural hair, this community certainly has a very loud, albeit in discordance, opinion. But the question brought up by the exhibit in New York City, as well as on blogs and forums across the Internet (and probably over wine in your living room with your best friends too) has yet to reach a majority rules answer: Is it OK for other people to touch your hair?
"What is the issue?" you might be asking, and the list, my friend, grows long. For some, touching without asking is the real issue. For others, it's the desire to touch at all. For others still, it's the comments that are spurred on from that initial curiosity which range from "it keeps breaking off" to "it's so crunchy," and so on.
On the other side of the fence sits another side of the natural hair opinion, which upholds that this wanting to touch is based solely out of curiosity and a desire to understand. For these people, allowing someone (with permission!) to touch his or her hair is not only unintrusive, but a way to better understand different cultures and practices. For many, it's a common human experience exchange.
But no matter which side you fall on, the "You Can Touch My Hair Exhibit" had very few online supporters. By placing what is a mild annoyance for some into an exhibit for all to see, many felt that the showcase was more of a human petting zoo than something to encourage dialogue and open minds. Antonia Opiah, founder of un-ruly.com, is steadfast in her belief that this exhibit was not only a good thing but that it has served its purpose insanely well - by sparking a dialogue amongst the natural hair community as well as those who may not have known it even existed.
In an article for The Huffington Post, Opiah explored the hair touching phenomena, expressing her finding that there is a "lack of the right kind of curiosity across the American population."
To extract the quote that spurred her decision for the exhibit:"America the Melting Pot was renamed America the Salad Bowl -- a mix of cultures that didn't blend into one homogenous one, but instead maintained their own identities. There is such thing as a Black American culture, a White American culture, an Asian American culture, Native American, Hispanic American, and there are nuances and differences within those cultures. Living in America and not knowing anything about the other people that live in the country is impolite. It's like living with roommates for 236 years and knowing nothing about them; awwkwaaaaard. It's good to know your roommates; it makes for a more comfortable living situation. Americans are already notorious for not knowing much about the world outside of the U.S. We should certainly make an effort to know about the worlds inside America."
She ends her piece by encouraging people to ask the question: " Because if you're actually friends with a person, 'Can I touch your hair?' is a question you don't have to ask because you know that you can either just do it or know to steer clear. And if you don't know any black people that well enough, maybe you should be asking yourself a different question."
Was the exhibit informative? Yes. Did it spark conversation and debate? Oh, indeed. Has it cleared the curiosity outside the natural hair community or created a majority opinion within it? Definitely not.
As with all art, though, it is the seemingly absurd ideas and exhibitions that culture looks back upon with fondness. Perhaps this is the beginning to the end of a decades-long misunderstanding between peoples that live most often right next door to one another. After all, the first step to treating your neighbor as yourself is to understand their viewpoint and how that affects their experiences.
Want to join the discussion? Take part in the panel here.