Connected \\ May 16, 2023
Following the Thread: PEMcast 30
You never know where the PEMcast is going to send you. For this episode, heading straight to a local barber shop seemed obvious. That’s because we’re exploring human hair, as medium and as subject matter, examining its cultural meaning and as a mode of creative expression. At the busy Badabing Barbershop and Shave Parlor in downtown Salem, we talk with barbers about a subject near and dear to their hearts: the many bags of hair swept up every day.
Lauren Lusardi cuts the hair of a customer who commutes many miles. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.
At PEM, hair has been top of mind, so to speak, as we anticipated a large installation made entirely from human hair. To some, hair has a major ick factor. This was not lost on the barbers we talked to. “It's just the fact that it's attached to a human,” said Lauren Lusardi. “The thought of it, like, ‘Oh, this is coming out of somebody, and I'm going to cut it off.’ It’s so weird.”
The person who got us thinking so much about hair is contemporary artist Gu Wenda, whose dramatic installation united nations - man and space (1999-2000) is on view until November 5. The work includes representations of the 188 flags that made up the United Nations in the year 2000, when the world was perhaps a more innocent place. Not only does this get us thinking about geopolitics, but it also raises questions for many about why this collection of flags is made of hair. But it makes sense when we think of it as our shared genetic code, celebrating our human connection. Gu Wenda’s piece is fitting for PEM when you consider that it’s a museum founded by 18th-century global entrepreneurs whose legacy still challenges us to think about our place in the world, says Curator Trevor Smith.
Trevor Smith is PEM’s Associate Director of Multisensory Experience and Curator of the museum’s Present Tense Initiative. He brought Gu Wenda’s dramatic installation to the museum. Photo by Dinah Cardin/PEM.
Artist Gu Wenda with his installation at PEM during the opening reception this spring. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Human hair can be found in many of PEM’s collection areas, including our pieces of 19th-century mourning jewelry. In PEM’s storied Ropes Mansion, we caught up with Associate Curator Lan Morgan to examine some of these delicate pieces that were made following the death of members of the Ropes family who lived in the Essex Street home for generations.
Family heirlooms at the Ropes Mansion, including a lock of hair and a delicate stickpin containing hair. Photo by Ellie Dolan/PEM.
One tragic death in the family occurred in 1839, when Abigail Pickman Ropes died after her dress caught on fire while she was carrying hot coals from one room to another. Her sister Sally commissioned mourning jewelry for Abigail and other members of the family. Abigail’s obituary tells us that her death was a sad event for the whole city of Salem.
Hair jewelry items became so popular in the 1800s that they were often worn as a fashion statement, in addition to being given as a token of friendship or love, says Morgan. “They're intensely personal objects, and that's why they've survived today. That's why we still have so many of them, and it's often why you see them in good condition like you do today – because they were very much treasured and held closely.”
Gio Swaby and studio assistant, Veronica Dorsett. Photo by Anthony Gebrehiwot © 2023 Peabody Essex Museum.
Gio Swaby. Photo by Anthony Gebrehiwot © 2023 Peabody Essex Museum.
The last part of this episode switches from hair as medium to hair as subject. In her sewn and appliquéd portraits, textile artist Gio Swaby zooms in on personal style, including hair styles. Gio Swaby: Fresh Up opens at PEM this summer.
“For me and for a lot of Black women, hair is always a complicated journey. It’s incredibly important as part of our culture,” said Swaby, who grew up in the Bahamas. The artist calls her work “love letters to Black women and girls.”
“Tracing ancestry is difficult,” she says. “The record-keeping only goes back so far. There is a history in the diaspora of enslavement, and how being stolen and taken away has really broken down our ability to trace back where we’ve come from. Looking at images from hundreds of years ago, you can see the similarities in hairstyles. I can still see some of the same hairstyles and some of the same methods of hair care, which, for me, shows there is still this connection. It’s a visceral connection to history that in many ways feels lost. But hair is a way we can access parts of that.”
Gio Swaby, My Hands Are Clean 4, 2017, Thread and fabric appliqué on canvas. Courtesy of Claire Oliver & Ian Rubinstein. © Gio Swaby.
Gio Swaby, New Growth Second Chapter 11, 2021, Thread and fabric appliqué on canvas. Collection of The Altman Family. © Gio Swaby.
PEMcast 30: Following the Thread
Dinah: Have you ever had anyone come in and ask you for a bag of hair?
Dinah: What was your reaction?
Lauren: Why? Why would you do that? That's disgusting.
Dinah: If somebody said, "I can't tell you what I want it for," would that be weird?
Jordan: I always maybe joke, if you go to the nearest crime scene or whatever, you really wanted to ruin someone's day, you just kind of shake the hair all over the place. It's like, "There's 45 guys in here, just call various levels of DNA everywhere.
[ Clipper sound]
Dinah: Welcome to the PEMcast, conversations and stories for the culturally curious. From the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, I’m your host, Dinah Cardin.
Dinah: (tape)So here’s things going on here. We got beard trims, haircuts, one, two, three, four haircutters working, people coming in and out. The second somebody leaves, somebody else walks in. The razors keep firing up. The owner keeps yelling to people walking by who he knows. People driving by are honking. The door is open. We're right across from City Hall. It is hopping in here.
Dinah:(tape) Does hair gross you out?
Staff: No, not at all….It gets in my food, in my hands and arms. You get hair splinters. I don't get worried about it.
Dinah: (tape) You get hair splinters?
[Customer walks in]
Dinah: (tape) Is he your guy?
Staff: Ooh, this is my favorite guy.
Dinah: (tape) Can I get you to say your name?
Jordan: Oh, yeah. Hi I'm Jordan. I'm the owner of the Bada Bing Barber Shop and Shave Parlour.
Dinah: At the Bada Bing Barber Shop and Shave Parlour, it’s common to hear someone yell ‘gimme five on top and two on the side.’ We’re here because this episode is all about hair – its cultural meaning and how it conveys our own personal creative expression. Here at the museum, we’re gearing up for The Moth Story Slam. On Thursday, August 3rd, you can tell an intimate story about hair. Yours, someone else’s, your pets. Or come participate by listening. In the meantime, we return to the place where people think about hair all day long.
Dinah: (tape) How much hair do you think is swept up at this shop every day?
Jordan: What unit of measurement would you like, by the pounds, the inch? I'd say at least like 15 Irish Wolfhounds' worth of fur or hair, just all swept up into one bag.
Dinah: (Tape) By the Irish Wolfhound?
Dinah: (tape) Yeah. It's at least 313 gallons, so 39 gallons of hair. That's a lot of hair.
Dinah: (tape) What would you say if I came in here and I said, "Can I have some"? Do you… find it disgusting to imagine hair going out here in bags?
Jordan: Because if you really think about it, anything protruding from your scalp is dead. So, now you're just removing dead parts of yourself, sprinkling it all over yourself, in your eyes. It's fucking [BLEEPing] gross.
Dinah: (tape)All right. What would you say if I told you that we're opening an exhibition that includes the hair of people from almost every country in the world?
Jordan: Wow. That's pretty righteous. I'd love to make donations.
Lauren: That’s disgusting. I hope that is saran wrapped or something because that's a lot of DNA.
Dinah: This is Lauren Lusardi, Jordan’s wife and a barber here too.
Dinah: (tape) That's the entire point, is it's making it a portrait of humanity through their DNA.
Lauren:That’s wicked cool. I’d actually go see that.
Dinah: It’s donations from barber shops and beauty salons and he thinks it’s 500,000 people.
Jordan: That's a lot of people, huh?
Dinah: Contemporary artist Gu Wenda has us obsessed with hair. His large dramatic work must be seen to be experienced. It has been sparking conversations among staff and visitors alike. The giant work represents the flags of the member states of the United Nations from the year 2000…made entirely of human hair.
Lan: I think we've come leaps and bounds. When this installation was first proposed, there was a lot of trepidation around it, there was a lot of nervousness.
Dinah: This is Lan Morgan, Associate Curator at PEM, who worked on this installation. Using hair in this work is all about our shared genetic code, celebrating our human connection. It’s a message our staff can certainly get behind. Still, in preparation for bringing this work to our garden atrium, our curators had sort of an uphill battle. They often had to contend with some blank stares and concerned expressions. Would the human hair aspect be too off putting?
Lan: I have to admit, myself included, I think the idea of human hair at this scale has a little bit of an ick factor, [laughs] for lack of a better term. But now that it’s installed, the piece itself is actually quite beautiful, especially here in our atrium and you get all of these really incredible shadows that are cast from the flags. This piece is very much a statement about our oneness as a human race.
Dinah: Gu Wenda works in hair and other bodily materials after training as a Chinese ink painter, becoming well known for large scale ink paintings, where he worked with invented Chinese characters.
Lan: Early on, he started making ink out of hair, working with a traditional factory in China. Then right here in front of us, we have these bricks that are made completely out of hair too. These have been used in some of his projects where he creates what he calls monuments. These are made to the size of actual bricks in sections of the Great Wall of China.
Dinah: (tape) That's so cool. Let me ask you this. Would you ever donate your hair to something like this?
Lan: Absolutely. I think it would be really fascinating to have your hair immortalized in this way. Interestingly, many of the visitors who have come here, especially while Gu was here, asked him if they could donate their hair. So, he had a very difficult time gathering this hair before he was well known for this kind of work, but now it’s easy for him. Many people want to donate their hair to his projects.
Trevor: The artist, when he first began these projects that required him to gather hair, he deliberately went to barbershops and beauty salons from a very wide social and cultural array of communities.
Dinah: This is Trevor Smith, PEM’s Associate Director of Multisensory Experience and Curator of the museum’s Present Tense Initiative. It’s part of Trevor’s job to bring artists and works to the museum that might take us by surprise or challenge us in new ways.
Trevor It's been a long process. We first started talking about working with Gu as part of a bigger project in the fall of 2016. By December 2019, we knew we wanted to do a solo project with him, and we went to his exhibition in Wuhan, of all places. Then, the world changed. It was a real accomplishment for everybody here to stick to this and not let it go. The vision of a work that speaks about the collective humanity already felt like an urgent question in 2019. It feels even more urgent today in 2023.
Dinah: Gu Wenda started this project three decades ago. He is considered one of the most significant artists to emerge from China in the last 50 years.
Trevor: He moved to New York in '97 and was confronted by what might be described as the melting pot of the city, the coexistence of all of these different cultures, and began to want to reflect this in his artwork somehow and find a medium that could allow him to express this.
Gu Wenda: Bodily material has a benefit. It closes the gap between the artwork and human viewers.
Dinah: Here is Gu, speaking with us about what drew him to working with this controversial medium.
Gu: By doing this piece I become a learner of the significance behind hair in different races, different regions.
Dinah: The hair was collected from barber shops, beauty salons and individual volunteers from around the world. It was then cleaned and sorted. To make the flags, it was then mixed with glue and applied to burlap to give it structure. This mixing of so many people’s hair produces what the artist sees as a collective portrait of humanity.
Gu: So this work, United Nations, actually, is the big collaboration with all the races around the world, so everybody feels they are in it. The work has its purpose, try to bring people together.
Trevor: Traditionally, DNA might be used to identify one person out of a million others, whereas here, what he's doing is he's taking these traces and mingling them entirely.
Dinah: Trevor again.
Trevor: But, if you think about the flag. It’s a symbol of patriotism or nationalism, it's a symbol that might unite some people, but they divide those people against another group of people. So the addition with the body, with DNA, is a reminder of our common humanity.
Dinah: An introductory video helps explain and invites visitors to Gu Wenda’s vision as a celebration of all of us.
[Video with Trevor’s voice Welcome to Gu Wenda’s installation, united nations: man and space.]
Dinah: Since its beginnings in 1799, PEM has invited its visitors to rethink their place in the world.
Trevor: Watching other people's reactions is, of course, a critical part of how I work as a curator. We have a group of about 10 or 12 folks of all ages. You can see from the look on their face that they're enjoying exploring the work from many different angles and kind of reflecting on it.
Dinah: (tape) Can you point out some of the flags?
Trevor: Straight ahead of us right now is the US flag, and it's right next to the China Flag. That's the only flags in this whole installation that have been deliberately placed. Of course, it relates to Gu's origins as a Chinese person, but also as a US resident. Then, let me see. It looks like we have South Africa up there. There's Australia right up top. There's Mexico hanging across.
Gu:The time I create this work, that world was kind of peaceful, and everybody's happy. Comparatively to today, the political, social, and economic situation become kind of turmoil.
Dinah: This is the artist again.
Gu: For the physical space around, I talked to curator of the museum, Trevor. Usually my work is symmetrical, but this work is a little bit chaotic. It fits the situation and the time that we live in.
Trevor: One of the things about how we've installed the work is that we have deliberately placed breaks and openings in structure. Partly because of the fluid nature of this moment, where international relations are being rethought, reimagined, are being tested in new and old ways, it felt important to create a structure that didn't pretend to be complete and whole. There's a lot of different reasons why countries change and identifications change. The point is that it's a fluid situation, and it's much more fluid than we think on a day to day basis.
Dinah: (tape) Even as the face of NATO is changing today, right now.
Trevor: Exactly. For a museum that is founded on the first generation of global entrepreneurs in the United States, they founded this institution to help us think about: who are we, where are we and where are we going?
Lan: Hair is a material that's been used for thousands of years by many different kinds of artists.
Dinah: Again, PEM Associate Curator Lan Morgan. She’s helping us make the connection between the work of contemporary artists and the fact that hair has long been used in art making.
Lan: We have hair included in many indigenous objects, often ritual objects. We have hair included in our Asian export collections. Our South Asian collections and Chinese export collections have unfired clay figures that have hair in them.
Dinah: Lan and I are in PEM’s Ropes Mansion on Essex Street in Salem. It’s one of 22 historic houses that the museum stewards as part of our collection.
Lan: Hair is particularly significant in mourning jewelry because it has this very sentimental connection with the human body. It's also a material that doesn't degrade. If you think about Egyptian mummies that you see or even exhumed medieval kings, they still have their hair. It's something that you can use as a lasting keepsake. Hair has a very personal connection to the body, in terms of the fact that you remember somebody by the color of their hair, the texture of their hair. If you have an intimate connection with them, you've likely touched their hair. It's a very personal way to keep that person's body or keep a person who you've lost close to you.
Dinah: In 1893, three unmarried sisters living in Cincinnati decided to move to Salem upon learning their brother Nathaniel Ropes the fifth had died. He left them the mansion and a sizable fortune. The personal belongings of the Ropes family have been cared for here ever since. But what has also been preserved are the family’s stories. These rooms witnessed birth, death, friendship, celebration…and mourning.
Lan: What's really interesting about the mourning jewelry in the Ropes Mansion is not that it's particularly unique mourning jewelry. It's more so that it's representing several different generations within the Ropes family, and that it's all preserved and in situ here at the Ropes Mansion. What we have here are some of our earlier pieces that were made for the husband of Sally Ropes. He died very early on in their marriage in 1818. Sally snipped a few locks of his hair and she brought them to the local Salem jewelers, Baldwin and Baker. She had them make nine memorial pins and three rings with jet stones set in gold. Each of them has a braided piece of hair under a piece of rock crystal.
Dinah: (tape) This is not a woman's hair, this is a man's hair in these?
Lan: Yes, exactly. These would have been distributed to family members as a token of remembrance for him.
Dinah: (tape) They're so tiny. We've looked at photographs of these where we think they're much larger, but they're so delicate.
Lan: I think that's an essential part of it. They could be something …that you wear on the outside of your clothing to signify your state of mourning or grief, but they're also intensely personal items. They're things that you might have worn on the inside of your clothing or maybe even kept hidden away in a drawer for your own personal contemplation. We have this modern sensibility that hair is somehow maybe unclean. It can seem a little bit gross [laughs] to our modern sensibility, but if you think about it, it is very romantic. It's very sentimental. It's very personal. It's a lovely thing to have close to you. Very sadly, Sally endured several tragic deaths during her lifetime. Her husband died, her daughter, Elizabeth, died, and her sister, Abigail, died. In 1839, Abigail Ropes was carrying hot coals from one room to another, and her dress caught on fire. Unfortunately, she suffered from those burns for about three weeks before she passed away, which we know from her obituaries that it was a very tragic event for the family and for the town at large. Sally had some of her hair turned into jewelry to give to family members. So we have on display five mourning brooches. These again, she went to a local jeweler.
Dinah: There's something so heartbreakingly intimate about these tiny, delicate pieces, as you say, that they may have even worn inside their clothes, they may have hidden, put in a pocket maybe, a way to try to keep that person close to them.
Lan: Absolutely. They're intensely personal objects, and that's why they've survived today. That's why we still have so many of them, and it's often why you see them in good condition because they were very much treasured and held closely and given as token and keepsakes pretty widely.
[Ad for PEM]
Dinah: We’ve been exploring stories about hair and its meaning across cultures. If you have a tale to share, check pem.org for details of our upcoming Moth Story Slam. Perhaps, like the Ropes family, you have a poignant family story about hair. Now, we switch gears from hair as medium to hair as personal identity and creative expression.
Gio: Hi, my name is Gio Swaby. I’m a visual artist, working at the moment, primarily in textiles. And I have an exhibition opening, called Fresh Up, at the Peabody Essex Museum, coming this summer.
Dinah: Rising young artist Gio Swaby often foregrounds hair in her work. This final section of our episode celebrates textile-based portraits that the artist calls “love letters to Black women and girls.”
Gio: We are in my studio right now.
Dinah: Our team traveled to Toronto to speak with Gio as we anticipate the opening this summer of Gio Swaby: Fresh Up.
Gio: Fresh up is part of Bahamian dialect. It’s how you give someone a compliment. It can just be a way of carrying yourself. You get a new haircut and it brings out like a confidence in you. You can say to someone, you get all fresh up today or you’re lookin’ fresh up. It’s a way to connect in a positive energy. You can see the boost in people.
Dinah: The artist’s subjects come from her tight social circle. She creates these portraits to help her loved ones see themselves the way she sees them as she offers them love as a healing, restorative force.
Gio: For me, it made sense to start with the people who are closer to me in my life, to bring them into this work and be able to share that same moment with them of seeing yourself in this new way.
Dinah: Each portrait begins with a photo shoot. Sitters are captured in a moment of self-awareness and empowerment. Swaby then takes that photograph and turns it into a colorful textile portrait. The resulting works are dynamic and intensely intimate. Gio foregrounds the sitters’ hair, clothing, and jewelry—highlighting their use of fashion as self-expression. In her own words, the pieces “celebrate personal style, vulnerability, strength, beauty, individuality, and imperfections.”
Gio: People think it’s drawing, made of ink or charcoal or something else. But upon closer inspection, you can see this is stitching, it’s thread and the relationship completely changes.
Dinah: A love of textiles came from growing up in a house full of colorful fabric and thread. The artist’s mother was a seamstress.
Gio: Every school in the Bahamas uses school uniforms, so she made all my school uniforms. I’d help her with that too, sewing on the buttons, putting the hooks on the skirt. None of my other siblings took to the practice at all, so it was being able to share this thing with her. For fabrics, my choice is a lot of color. I think it’s reflective of being from the Bahamas, someone from the Caribbean, color is just a part of life. In other cities, everyone is all black. You will probably never have that moment in the Bahamas.
Dinah: When viewed together, these portraits not only create a mosaic of representation, they also make a joyful community.
Gio: A lot of the power in these works is seeing many of them together. You can see the differences in how they’ve chosen to style themselves. The other thing is also the similarities, kind of overarching motifs return.
Dinah: One of these recurring motifs is hair.
Gio: For me and for a lot of Black women, hair is always a complicated journey. It’s incredibly important as part of our culture. Of course, the way that each person relates to their hair is going to be different. I think for Black women, globally, hair is part of our identity and the way we present ourselves. My personal journey has been through hair as well. From having relaxed hair to now having natural hair for more of my life than my hair was relaxed. It also is a connection to lineage and ancestry. Being from the Bahamas, tracing the ancestry is difficult. There is a history in the diaspora of enslavement and how being stolen and taken away has really broken down our ability to trace back where we’ve come from. But looking at images from hundreds of years ago, you can see the similarities in hairstyles. I can still see some of the same hairstyles and some of the same methods of hair care, which for me, shows there is still this connection. It’s a visceral connection to this history that feels lost. But hair is a way we can access parts of that.
Dinah: As someone who didn’t go to art galleries or museums during her childhood, Gio loves that subjects who look like her are now hanging on those walls. Represented in her first solo museum show.
Gio: For a lot of people, based on the feedback that I’ve heard, seeing my work might be the first time they’ve seen a version of themselves in this kind of space. I don’t take the importance of that lightly. It’s a huge consideration in how I make this work and the way these portraits come together to feel like you are in a space that is warm and accommodating. That’s where my mind is when I’m making these pieces and thinking about the experience that they will have.
Dinah: YOU can see Gio Swaby: Fresh Up at PEM, starting August 12, 2023. PEM’s organizing curator is Lydia Peabody. Thank you to PEM’s Chip and Whitney Van Dyke for their studio visit with Gio Swaby. Thank you to PEM curators Trevor Smith and Lan Morgan. Gu Wenda: united nations is on view through November 5, 2023. PEM’s Ropes Mansion opens for self-guided tours May 27, where you can see for yourself, the mourning jewelry and other family heirlooms belonging to generations of the Ropes family. Also, get ready for PEM’s live open-mic storytelling, the Moth Story Slam, this summer on August 3. Start now to prepare your five-minute story about hair or come listen to these intimate stories. Find out more at pem.org. This episode of the PEMcast was produced by me, Dinah Cardin, and edited and mixed by Erika Setter. Learn more about this episode and see related photos and artworks on our blog Connected at pem.org. The PEMcast is generously supported by the George S. Parker Fund.