Origins of the Afro Comb – unlocks forgotten stories

Material Culture and forgotten stories 

I could not contain my excitement.There it was, framed in all its glory – a plastic carrier bag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If a plastic bag is going to survive for 500 years or more, it should serve a purpose.The Dyke and Dryden plastic bag did just that. A plastic fragment from history reminding us about Dyke & Dryden – the first black owned  company to manufacture and distribute Afro hair and skin care products in Europe.

The company organised the first Afro Hair and Beauty Show in 1983. The history about black entrepreneurship in England is rather thin on the ground, therefore this display at the Origins of the Afro Comb at Bruce Castle Museum in Tottenham presents us with the almost forgotten, recent history of the success of Dyke and Dryden.

Dyke and Dryden hair and skin products

Dyke and Dryden hair and skin products

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The items on display are part of the Bruce Castle Museum collection acquired in 1987.In addition to introducing an audience to a different aspect of Black British History, this exhibition might help us associate Tottenham with a more positive image.Could the Generation Vexed of the London 2011 riots take some inspiration from the Dyke and Dryden story?

The Dyke & Dryden collection is an important contribution because it is an example of Black Britsh people contributing to museum collections as autonomous 'subjects' instead of 'objects' of ethnographic collections which reinforce notions of white superiority, difference and black stereotypes.I wonder if there are other Dyke & Dryden products lurking in other collections in England or is this an example of savvy museum collecting?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Origins of the Afro Comb at the Bruce Castle Museum manages to weave global and local histories about the Afro comb in quite interesting ways, as Dyke & Dryden had international links in the United States and Nigeria.

A fabric alive with history

This global/local conversation is continued with the textile and contemporary Afro combs in the exhibition. The Dutch Wax print material synonymous with  British/Nigeria artist Yinka Shonibare and currently becoming part of the visual aesthetic in trendy London spaces like Camden,&Brick Lane markets, lifestyle boutiques and international catwalks, map the networks and exchange which transpires between culture, consumption, art and fashion.

I like the fact the museum staff did not buy this material from Brixton market. This material is on loan from 'Mark the cloth'- a street trader from Pimlico. I am fascinated. Who is' Mark the cloth'? How old is this material? The Afro comb motif on the fabric takes us on another journey – somewhere beyond the Afro combs on display – beyond the images in books.

Afro comb Dutch Wax textile

Dutch Wax textile

Contemporary Arts and Crafts

In a similar vein to the Fitzwilliam Exhibition, this exhibition provides a space for contemporary artists to engage with the afro comb as stakeholders in the production of knowledge.

The Afro combs produced by Jackie Dacres and Melonie Stennet provide us with insights about the Afro comb, African hair type and the social space which grooming this hair type engenders.

Jackie Dacres's interpretation of the Afro comb displaces our expectations about what an Afro comb should be. Replacing wood with light steel, we might begin to think of this personal object as something in the realm of public sculpture perhaps. One cannot ignore the exaggerated size and we can't help thinking who would use a comb like this? Is this a comb designed for the Na'vi in Avatar  or some imaginary Amazonian woman? Does this comb speak to, and about personal stories,memories and associations?

The curly configuration and twisted shapes provide us with some intimation of the African hair morphology, its extremely curly configuration and the resultant  difficult combability.

Afro comb sculpture by Jackie Dacres

Afro comb sculpture by Jackie Dacres

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Melonie Stennet's black leather and wool comb also renders multiple readings of her interpretation of the Afro comb.On first sight, it is reminiscent of an African fetish object from an ethnographic collection. However a closer examination  suggests a lot more.The choice of wool instead of synthetic black hair references the chemical similarity between African hair, Asian hair and Caucasian hair.

Did you know that wool and human hair are made of Keratin?

Afro comb sculpture by Melonie Stennett

Afro comb sculpture by Melonie Stennett

Good Hair stories

Jackie Dacres shares a good hair story with us and we are invited to share a private moment as she explains that:

After getting dressed, my daughter would enter my room and sit poised on the floor with her head held in position to have her hair combed.Despite her tender age  of six years, each day she knew exactly how she wants it styled

Jackie paints a picture evocative of the social relations associated with hair grooming.This introduces us to a narrative about how hair grooming allows trust, love, warmth and bonding time between mother and daughter to flourish. 

My hair story

My British/Nigerian heritage gives me first hand experience about the social relations associated with hair grooming. Hair grooming creates an intimate female space for the exchange of knowledge, creativity and bonding.We shared stories, discussed politics, boys,home-work, other girls, food recipes and fashion. It was a place of transformation to look good and feel good.

We were oblivious to the stigma of 'good /bad hair' discussions about African type hair in  Europe and America. Good hair to us, was to have neat and shiny hair. Therein lies notions of personal grooming and a responsibility to look good and be a model ambassador – representing your family, school or community with a sense of pride.

What is your hair story?

I like the Afro comb exhibition because it gives anyone who has Afro textured hair a platform to share their story and contribute to history as subjects not objects. Dr Sally-Ann Ashton,curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Origins of the Afro comb exhibition remarks that:

I realised there really wasn't a black voice in terms of the history or story of African type hair.It tended to be dominated by American voices but we really did not have anything from Britain. I thought it was really important that we try and capture that for the future.

Share your hair story here and add your voice to the digital history for future generations.

Will our voices live for 500 years or more or will the Dyke and Dryden plastic bag last longer?

Origins of the Afro Comb at  Bruce Castle Museum is on till  April 6th 2014.

Opening times Wednesday to Sunday(1pm – 5pm).

 

 

 

About Yewande Okuleye

Cultural Historian|Londoner
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2 Comments

  1. Very enlightening Yewande, I particularly enjoy the section about good hair and bad hair. It’s a shame that many of our women let what they see in the media force them to be under the impressions that they have bad hair.

  2. I had a pony tail till i was 14 . cutting it off was a rite of passage into womanhood.

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