Jenna Gilley, Associate Curator of Exhibitions
As a previous Memphian with a deep passion and love for the city, this newest incident of violence against Tyre Nichols is heartbreaking. In the years following the murder of George Floyd, we have seen a rightful outpouring of anger throughout our nation. The Black Lives Matter movement brought together diverse communities, and over the course of several years, has made the need for action against racism and violence apparent and immediate. Yet, as this tragedy has shown, we still have a long way to go.
In the midst of the state of our nation, it is important to praise those artists who are uplifting Black voices and spreading Black joy; one such is Michael July. July is an exceptional photographer based out of Brooklyn, NY. He was influenced from a very early age by parents who were deeply into painting, designing, and making clothes. Michael first became a painter, then went on to produce music for himself and other artists throughout his high school years. Creating music led to deejaying, and then video. His passion for Black culture allowed him to amass a large collection of rare books, magazines, videos, and movies from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s & ‘90s. These influences would later come into play in his photography.
In the Spring of 2004, July began learning the art of photography. A couple years later (New Year’s Eve 2006, to be exact) he had his breakthrough moment: “At an Afro Punk party, I noticed the most attractive young couple with large, perfectly rounded Afros. I wanted to shoot them so badly but was a bit hesitant because they were in such a playful zone that I was afraid I would interrupt it. Then out of nowhere they both looked at me and simultaneously asked ‘aren’t you going to shoot us’? Well, that was the beginning of it.” Over five years, July continued just that, approaching people of virtually every shade, ethnicity, country, and age group to share the power, beauty, and glorious nature of natural hair. Accompanying several works are statements from the subjects, describing what their hair means to them.
Ten years ago, in 2013, the FWMoA was the first venue to display July’s AFROS: A Celebration of Natural Hair. We purchased the entire contents of the show, consisting of 71 photos, to create a traveling exhibition to share July’s work with other institutions. Over the course of the past decade, the exhibition has been displayed from Washington State to Florida, with several appearances locally at Indiana Tech (now on view!), the Allen County Public Library (2019, 2022), and again at the FWMoA in 2016.
July’s theory that natural hair would experience a Renaissance proved true; however, this was not always the case. When he first set out to capture afros in 2006, the artist struggled to find subjects for his book. “When I started, I had to search really hard,” he says. He spent two years traveling to different U.S. cities — Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Miami — looking for people with afros. For centuries, Black people have had to straighten, stretch, perm, steam, and hide their natural hair to appear “appropriate” in public, particularly professionally[i]. Several Black artists such as Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, and Zanele Muholi investigate the history of African American hairstyles and conventions of beauty through their work. Through his AFROS project, July joined in the discussion, using hair as a medium to speak up about the unfairness of Black people having to alter their hair to fit societal standards, and the importance of hair to African American society and culture.
Around 2010, July realized that the models he was in search of were right in his backyard. “I noticed a Renaissance period, particularly in Brooklyn,” he says, “A lot of them aren’t necessary native New Yorkers, but now here they are, with amazing hair.” That rebirth has spread quickly around the country, as more and more people embrace their natural texture in the workplace and beyond. In 2019, California was the first state to pass the CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination based on hair style and hair texture. Twelve other states have since followed suit, and seven others have passed similar laws.[ii] Black celebrities like Viola Davis, Lupita Nyong’o, Zendaya, and Questlove have additionally encouraged the acceptance of natural styles in media, showing the beauty of Black hair on television and the red carpet for years.
In his photos, July takes inspiration from the late 1960s and early 1970s, where the afro had its first wave of popularity. The signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 brought a new sense of identity and power to the African American community, sparking the Black is Beautiful movement. The afro was adopted by all genders as a political statement of identity, later becoming a fashion statement as well. Above in Shamika Bann Actress/Singer/Dancer & Choreographer Knoxville, TN/Harlem, USA, the artist has used styling and minimal accessories to harken back to the feel of the late 60s. The small, light yellow bow in the subjects hair was both a style and color that dominated the era. Turquoise jewelry was experiencing a wave of popularity too, as young hippies increasingly became enamored by Native American culture and crafts (a controversial issue in and of itself). The model’s fresh face and hopeful, upturned smile captures the natural, optimistic feel of the era. Her chestnut afro forms a halo around her face, similar to depictions of Christian icons. As it continues to grow, her hair will take up more and more physical space, announcing her presence and power wherever she goes[iii].
July’s photos aim to document the wide range of people who sport natural hair, from artists and singers like Shamika above to activists and dignitaries such as Dr. Cornel West, right[iv]. The inspiring professor is captured seated against a black and white background with a floral motif, staring directly into the camera with his hands clasped. Dr. West is the former Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. Among his many achievements, he graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton—the first African American to do so. As July’s title suggests, Dr. West is a prominent democratic intellectual, philosopher, activist, author and (not listed) musician. His black three-piece suit, dubbed by West as his “armor”, allows him to face the “arrows” of each day with confidence, dignity, and approachability. Like the afro, the tailored men’s suit has a deep connection to Black culture and fashion, being rooted in Sunday church attire. “I get my style from my father. It’s ancestor appreciation.”
While celebrating Black beauty is only one step towards healing in this country, encouraging Black youth to feel comfortable in their bodies is an even greater achievement. Comfort in oneself equates to confidence later in life, encouraging increased participation in school and society, a feeling of belonging, and the drive to reach for dreams. Michael July’s work does just that, mixing historical influence with the tastemakers of today to create politically potent (and simply beautiful) art.
[i] For more on this topic, I highly recommend checking out this article https://daily.jstor.org/how-natural-black-hair-at-work-became-a-civil-rights-issue/
[ii] Unfortunately, Indiana has still yet to do so, but the bill has been passed by the House as of 2022. If the Senate approves, the act will become national law
[iii] This is an interesting point. For centuries in Europe, using clothing, accessories, or hair to take up physical space signified the wearer’s importance in court (think of Queen Elizabeth I in her huge farthingale gowns and standing collars). Perhaps the unwillingness for workplaces and institutions to accept the afro is not due to its appearance, but the space (and therefore power) it demands. Hmm…