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Jawara’s New Virtual Exhibition Is His Latest Love Letter to the Beauty of Black Hair

Vogue logo Vogue 10/29/2020 Alex Peters
Diandra Forrest standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera © Nadine Ijewere

Sculptural and avant garde, full of striking shapes and towering silhouettes, hairstylist Jawara’s work is beyond just hair—it’s art. Since spending his childhood immersed in the culture and community of his aunt’s salon in Jamaica, where he was raised and where his love for hair was ignited, the Brooklyn-born stylist’s work continues to celebrate the beauty and power of Black hair, honoring the historical significance, identity, and self-expression that it carries.

After graduating from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and the Aveda Institute in 2009, Jawara brought his heritage to the contemporary fashion world, assisting the likes of Sam McKnight and Guido Palau before striking out on his own in 2013. Since then, he’s created gravity-defying structures for Vivienne Westwood, Off-White, Solange and most recently, Naomi Campbell on American Vogue’s November cover.

Earlier this year, Jawara collaborated with photographer Nadine Ijewere on an exhibition, Tallawah — a love letter to the generations of Jamaican women around the world who express their selfhood and culture through their hair. Now, he’s presenting his second exhibition, COARSE: The Edges of Black Ingenuity, a virtual presentation that explores the poetry and politics of Blackness through the lens of Afro hair.

a person wearing a costume © Nadine Ijewere

Open from October 22 to December 2020, the exhibition features images by the hairstylist’s close collaborators, including photographers Ijewere, Tyler Mitchell, and Kyle Weeks, as well as unpublished pictures by Oliver Hadlee Pearch. Here, Jawara speaks to Vogue about his career, his new exhibition and the beauty of Black hair.

Congratulations on your first American Vogue cover. How does it feel, and what did it mean to you to work with Naomi Campbell for the cover?

Thank you. I appreciate that. It feels amazing, especially to do it with Naomi. It’s a full-circle moment. I’m extremely excited about it. It meant a lot because as a child, I saw images of Naomi and it made me feel that fashion was a place for people who looked like me. It made me feel like anything was possible. She always had poise, and she was so chic and unapologetically Black—I loved that—so it’s a powerful moment.

You have said that Black hair encompasses spiritual and historical realms. Can you speak a bit on the significance of Black hair?

It’s such a multifaceted subject. But, for instance, my mother and father are Rastafarian and took a vow never to cut their hair. A big part of their culture is to keep their hair growing the way it is, in its natural state, which becomes dreadlocks. So that’s something they spiritually have decided to do.

Hair allows you to tell someone’s socio-economic position in life, you can tell what someone does, what their career is. And how they move—it’s like a public card when you see someone in the Black community with their hair expressing themselves. There are so many facets to it, it’s hard to describe in words and that’s why I felt like it’d be best to do it in pictures.

“There’s a lot of cleverness that goes into the hairstyles that people live with in Black communities, and people always wonder why they are so intricate. Why does it look like art? It’s a self-expression that hasn’t been allowed in any other arena, but people show it with their hair.

a man wearing a suit and tie: SS 2019 © Kyle Weeks SS 2019

Who else were you inspired by growing up and at the beginning of your career?

I would definitely say one of my earliest inspirations was my mother. Her name is Sister Carol, she’s a reggae legend in Jamaica. My aunts are entertainers, too—they were my first fashion influences. I was also inspired by dancehall culture in Jamaica in the early 1990s, where I was raised. Also, music videos and fashion models, anything from R&B to rock to pop videos, Tyra Banks to Cindy Crawford. It made me excited about getting dressed and being adorned.

Your aunt had a hair salon in Jamaica. How did growing up around that shape your understanding of hair styling?

A hair salon is a community within itself, there’s so much going on. It’s not just people getting their hair done, especially in a place such as Jamaica—it’s people coming together, it’s a community. People are selling things, talking, exchanging ideas and information. So the salon was my first real idea of what community is. That shaped me, especially during the height of the dancehall era when everyone was a bit more avant garde and provocative with their fashion.

An exhibition of your work has just opened. How did COARSE come about?

I’ve always done a lot of work based around Black hair because I feel like there’s a deficiency of knowledge about it. One of my duties is to try to educate and highlight how amazing Black hair is, how versatile it is. At one point, it was a tool used to discriminate, so I want to celebrate it as much as possible now—the beauty of Black hair, and what it means to Black culture and Black people.

I’ve always used art as a medium to convey my messages, so it only seemed right and natural for me to [create an art exhibition]. Black culture is art, so I love to showcase it as art—if it’s thought-provoking and emotion-provoking. I’d love people who can relate to the pictures to look at them and feel pride. And people who can’t relate to them, to understand where the people are coming from who do this, and how it’s self-expression and what that means. And to be educated a bit more about why things are the way they are.

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Summer 2019 © Tyler Mitchell Summer 2019

When you’re creating a hairstyle, how do you approach it? What is the process?

I like to get the vibe of the person [I’m working with] to understand what they’re feeling and why they want to look the way they want to look. Before I start, it’s always a mental thing for me of ‘why?’. And then I go off my gut feeling of what that person might need, or what would be nice for them, and go from there. Or if it’s for a fashion project, what message are we trying to send? What are we trying to have people feel?

What advice would you give to young artists, particularly ones who haven’t always seen themselves represented, hoping to get into the industry?

I would say there’s always a place for us and we are here to thrive. Consistency and education are key. And find a sense of self before you go into any career because you have to keep that in order to have a point of view. The point of view is very important—even if you’re not seeing it in magazines, it’s important because we need to [see it], and that’s what I feel I’ve been able to do.

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