in SWAG issue #3
Interview Emmanuel Balogun
“We now live in a more conscious climate in the UK and on the continent. Black people are returning to their roots, we no longer want to put chemicals in our hair. We’re embracing our textures. We’re accepting the duty to master our hair. We didn’t have much information available to us to learn about different hair-types. There’s more attention being drawn to our hair, as there should be. We’re observing schools and other institutions that accept and single out people (at times even young children) for wearing their hair out in an afro, it’s a natural state. We’ve come a long way but in some ways we still have a way to go. But it’s better than where we were 20 years ago.”
– Charlotte Mensah
2019 marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in the English colonies at Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619. Giving a fresh impetus to the quest to unite Africans on the continent with Africans in the diaspora, during the last days of December – the city of Accra became densely charged with the festival-goers of Afro Nation, Afrochella, and a critical-mass of the glitterati. Various events spurred by the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo and an army of Ghanain exports catered to dignitaries from Black Hollywood, cultural innovators from the continent and the African diaspora such as Academy Award-winning Actress, Lupita Nyong’o; Supermodel turned-activist, Naomi Campbell; British Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Edward Enninful; legendary Saville row tailor, Oswald Boateng, and renowned architect David Adjaye, amongst a host of others. The aforementioned are long-time friends of Charlotte Mensah, multi-award-winning Afro hair-stylist who held a hair-show at the Kempinski Hotel, Gold Coast city, on 31 December which situated hair as art.
The Mensah show led a lively conversation on hair, its historic function, and unpacked its form as a cultural artefact. Assembling local artisans and women designers from South Africa, the USA and beyond, intergenerational tales were told about the work of returning home. New afro-hair styles and forms were created centre-stage while local weavers wove sustainably designed afro-combs and artefacts for guests in attendance. The event shone a light on what can be achieved when we use our hands to create, rather than rely on the will of fabricated technology. We are wedged uncomfortably between the values of our traditional culture and those of the West . By presenting non-Western and Western hair techniques, modern and traditional artistry alongside each other, Mensah advocated for the sewing of best practices of hair care whether laying on foreign or local soil. The event blended education, spectacle and ritual; traditional drummers practised drum patterns to summon the ancestors. A traditional queen in attendance provided her formal blessing for the event and work that Mensah is leading in Ghana.
In this conversation, Mensah discusses her ties with Ghana, the focus of her upcoming book, life-lessons, and good and bad hair.
Emmanuel Balogun : Why was it important to you to host an event in Ghana?
Charlotte Mensah : I wanted to share my journey and exchange in conversation with inspirational women, peers and collaborators that have gone to extreme lengths to tell Africa’s success story back home and within the diaspora in places like the UK, across the pond in the USA and across the rest of the world. Homegoing does something vital to the soul.
EB: I understand you have a soon to be released book, published by Penguin, which seeks to unravel everything that everyone has ever wanted to know about afro-textured hair: from the best protective styles to sport to how to prevent hair loss and which products to avoid. What led you to write this book?
CM: This is something that should have happened years ago. It’s been hard to have a voice in the beauty and hair industry. It’s been difficult for us in the UK to speak on these issues in a public forum but now black communities are establishing their own platforms and being offered more space to talk openly about our journey.
EB: Rightly so!
CM: It’s 2020 – now is the time. I approach the styling of hair in black communities from more than just styling a person’s hair to the position of beauty. I’m concerned with hair in a holistic sense. I work to nurture and care for whatever hair a person has, whether it flows in abundance, is one inch long, curly, oily or kinky. It’s important for me to create a foundation for the hair so it nourishes and grows as it should – which makes it easy to maintain.
The industry is becoming filled with influencers occupying space by misinforming communities online about hair-care routines and practices that do not work. My upcoming book shares the history of black hair. It’s filled with tips, tricks and how-tos from a professional – for people aiming to achieve certain styles such as braids, faux locks and more.
It was a defining moment in my career when Penguin approached me. Literature about black hair is truly needed. I’m so overwhelmed by the interest it has attracted so far. I look forward to sharing the book as it speaks about the work I’ve done throughout the years.
EB: Afro-textured, mixed, natural, and curly hair types have been through several processes of critical, social, cultural, and political entanglement. What are some of the key takeaways or misconceptions about afro-hair that you’ve learned over the years?
CM: Most people with afro-textured, curly and mixed hair types are faced with the challenge of learning how they can get their hair to grow. They often ask how can I get my hair to behave a certain way and how can I make it look stylish? (…) Read the full interview in SWAG issue #3
In SWAG issue #3