By Damali; Founder, Artistic Director and Principal Natural HAIRart Ghana

Hair design or hair art is a genre within African art that has not been sufficiently highlighted. But the stylistic possibilities are legion and have been represented in an idealized form in the classic statues and masks.

A MENDE BUNDU HELMET MASK: Unknown artist, wood and paint, 35×19 cm, mid 20th century. Private Collection. The mask sports an elaborate natural hair style.
LOBI FEMALE STATUE: Unknown artist; wood,beads and cloth; 54×13 cm,, mid 20th century. Private collection. The statue has an interesting natural hair style.

Within our traditional  system, hair dressing has always been delegated to trusted friends or relatives.

In the urbanized setting of Kumasi in the early 1960s, a character still looms large in my memory.

From the book: Hair in African Art and Culture Some of the numerous styles in which the upper Mende women dressed their hair. You can see the influence of the hair in the masks. Photo: Allridge, late 19th century

Let me share what I remember.
As a child, there was my bi weekly hair appointment to the hair stylist situated within the bustling open air market.
When Mom and I arrived, Mamie Alata would receive us warmly with wonderful accolades directed towards me.
Soon after, Mom would leave me with Mamie Alata so as to continue with her shopping.

Mom with Damali in more recent days; 2015

Then immediately Mamie Alata’s (in)famous lock down moves will occur while both of us were seated on low stools facing each other.

Mamie Alata will start by placing one of her legs over my tiny shoulder causing my head to become locked down/immobilized  between the open lower end of her Anago indigo-dyed cloth; while leaving just enough space for me not to suffocate or pass out.

Young Ashley with healthy natural hair just before a design session with HAIRart; 1995.

She will then proceed to braid my hair into the most elaborate and intricate hair styles, against all odds.

All my cries, yelps, complaints with accompanied wincing fell completely on deaf ears. She calmly proceeded to complete her task in what to me seemed like eternity.

Mom, Damali and NBA…..again in more recent days; 2015

But always, within an hour, Mom will return to rescue me.

By then Mamie Alata had executed an exquisite African natural hair style that was deeply gratifying to both Mom and myself.

For the next fortnight, I will be sporting her fab creation with pride- even showing out as Mom added ribbons in a kaleidoscope of colors….sometimes to match the lace fringed ankle socks.

Young Ashley is all done; 1995.

Gone are the days when there was a lane with stalls in the various markets ( Market Circle Takoradi,  Makola Accra, Kejetia Kumasi) reserved for the Mamie Alatas to ply their trade on what was in effect Natural Hair Design Row.

What did I learn from Mamie Alata?

No, not no pain no gain.

Natural HAIRart Ghana Portfolio, 1996.

Instead, Mamie Alata taught me to be gentle with all my hair clients.

She taught me the importance of a clean, peaceful and soothing atmosphere in which to practise an ancient African art form at the highest level in a modern age.

As is evidenced from classic African art, Africans have always acknowledged the power of hair as an extension of the person and as a signifier- as always based on your personal choice.


Natural HAIRart Ghana Portfolio, 1992.
KLOWERKIE-QUEEN OF DIPO (detail). Oko Mate, acacia wood, 202cm, 2017. Courtesy of the artist. Note the intricate braided hair style.












2 thoughts on “NATURAL HAIRCARE”

  1. Great history, wonderful photos and beautiful illustrations. I want more! You’re a fabulous storyteller. Keep on keeping on!!!

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