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‘Hair Salon’: Architecture professor explores Black culture in new exhibit

The piece, titled “Hair Salon,” is a sprawling landscape of folds and coils. It is eye-catching from any angle and was designed to emulate the unique material properties of Black hair.|Photo courtesy of Nicholas Nguyen

The University officially opened the newest exhibition at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design On Thursday. 

The piece, titled “Hair Salon,” is a sprawling landscape of folds and coils and was designed to emulate the unique material properties of Black hair. 

The design team behind “Hair Salon” included multiple professionals from various backgrounds but was primarily headed by Sheryl Tucker De Vasquez, interim director of the interior architecture program at UH.

Vasquez has a history of working on projects involving Black culture that dates back to her involvement with the Project Row houses in 1993. She had just returned to the houses to do further work in 2020 when she was uniquely inspired by the patterns in the hair of the women around her.

“I wanted to do something related to domestic activities,” Vasquez said. “As an architect, I wanted to look at African threading and braiding hair as a way of integrating distinct materials together to create spacial enclosures.” 

Vasquez decided she would need help on the project, so she reached out to several colleagues, including computational design specialist Felicia Davis and architecture professor William D. Williams. 

She received funding from the Graham foundation to begin the project, the African American studies department helped fund her photographer Melissa Dugger, and several other schools offered some funding towards the piece. 

Vasquez says much of her inspiration came from the photographs of J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, a Nigerian photographer whose work was on display at the Museum of Fine Arts. Ojeikere’s work placed a special emphasis on postcolonial African hairstyles.

“After Nigeria achieved its independence from Britain, many of them were able to wear hairstyles that had been banned for years,” Vasquez said. “The hairstyles were spatial. They suggested or implied enclosure of spaces.” 

Vasquez was quick to note that contentious issues around Black hair remained somewhat common in culture, and she specifically referenced the Crown Act. This legislation would prevent discrimination against Black people for wearing their hair in a natural style.

She also noted that, in many ways, Black hair serves as an artifact of many Black people’s past.

“There’s so little that was able to survive the Atlantic Slave Trade, but this is still something that’s active across the Black diaspora,” Vasquez said. “Every Black American can relate to a hair story. When you’re a minority in this country, and your hair is different, it resonates.” 

Vasquez said it was challenging putting the piece together since each contributor had to meet on Zoom, but in her opinion, that allowed for more unique takes on each part of the exhibit. Her and her team plan to display the piece at other universities after its time at UH concludes.

For now, “Hair Salon” will be on display until the end of February to commemorate Black History Month. Vasquez said that she was stunned by the level of support she received from the Black community as they saw her piece. She encouraged students to see themselves in the piece.

“Consider leaning into what makes you unique and what you’re passionate about,” she said. “You don’t have to conform to the discipline as it is. You can be a disruptor.”

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