Maya Adams

Illustration by Nahil Memon

Maya Adams: Half Blood SLP

Hair is not just hair, it is the constant fight to be herself.

Dec 11, 2016

To untangle the intertwined roots of hair is not the easiest thing to do. Both personal and public, hair reflects femininity, identity or liberation. But what happens when hair becomes a societal constraint?
While hair might be a political or fashion statement for some, for junior Maya Adams, hair is the expression of her dual identity: Ugandan and U.S. American. Exploring the connection between hair and identity, Adams’ exhibit Half-blood was hosted from Dec. 3 to 5 in the Arts Center. It is easy for a visitor to Adams’ exhibition to grow curious, walking into a room lit only by two lamps. The scene has an intimate atmosphere. A couch and two armchairs invite the visitor to sit and watch the four short videos on tablets placed on a small table.
The videos present Adams’ project, which she began some months ago. They show when she decided to let her long, brown and dreadlocked hair be cut off by other people. The images of hands and scissors that pull her head and pluck at strands that are then cut off depict a brutal image. More shockingly, her passivity makes one wonder why anyone would let people do this to their hair.
“Hair is an identifier for me. When I’m in Uganda, the first thing people see is my lighter skin tone, but the thing that confirms that I’m not one of them is my hair. I might wear a turban and walk around and people might think that I’m Somali or Ethiopian, but when I do show my hair, they can see that’s something different about me”, explained Adams.
Unlike many Ugandans, who have a black kinky hair, Adams stands out with looser and brownish curls. Her mixed roots help her understand that the world is not divided only into black and white. Thus, Adams gave up on trying to reduce the attention on her hair when she decided to get a dramatic hair cut. Through her project, she wanted to challenge the expectations people have about her hair and make them look beyond just black and white.
Speaking from her own experience, Adams sees her hair as being more than a public asset. Cutting off her hair is a liberation from the stereotypes people imposed on her. In fact, she suggests her hair is a private asset that makes her identity visible.
In the past, cutting hair has been seen as both a movement of liberation for women who broke the social norms and a dramatic change of look. What all these women have in common is that they don’t want to let their hair determine the perception of their personhood.
“For me [it] is very confusing, because when I go to the United States, I’m just a black girl in a white community, whereas when I’m home, in Uganda, I’m considered white,” said Adams.
In the video of reflections that follow up the cut of her hair, Adams’ sheds light on another problem — the stigmatization of curly hair in Western society. The struggle with her U.S. American identity takes shape when she goes to the salon to straighten her hair. The new coiffure, along with the smell of smoke on her neck — the heat destroys the texture of her hair, and does not make her feel better.
“In one of the videos in which I was straightening my hair it’s almost me trying to own up to the black side of my identity, that will never be recognized by my white family,” added Adams.
The exhibition concludes with messages casually left on post-its in front of four framed pictures. The pictures show Adams with different hairstyles.
“Does my hair look comical to you?” asks one.
Along with the image of her face wearing a clown wig and a red nose, there are images showing the progression of becoming a clown. The message behind the images is that curly hair looks ludicrous and unprofessional. Although identity is not an interchangeable bargain between straight and wavy, self-objectification runs the risk of making a life in the shadow of others. Hair is not just hair, in Adams’ view, it is a constant fight to be herself.
Adams’ exhibition was a wonderful synthesis of the longing and belonging that placed her at the intersection of two worlds. Her hair becomes the extension of her personality. Her hair is her means to convey a powerful message — we need to look away from our monochrome view. For sure the world is made from more colors and textures than we can imagine.
Daria Zahaleanu is a staff writer. Email her at
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