Kimberly Morris Laisse Les Bon Temps Rouler (Let the Good Times Roll)
through March 15th
Cerritos College Art Gallery, Norwalk
Written by Genie Davis
Now at Cerritos College Art Gallery through March 15th, Kimberly Morris’ Laisse Les Bon Temps Rouler (Let the Good Times Roll) is perhaps the perfect exhibition for this season of Mardi Gras and Lent.
As the 2018 Cerritos College Art+Tech Artist-in-Residence (Cosmetology), Morris has created masks inspired by Creole Mardi Gras costumes – made from human hair. She says she was inspired to create the exhibition because she loves the use of hair as masks and adornments.
“I spent about four months working with the professors and students of the cosmetology department, which gave me incredible wealth of knowledge and access to the hair I used,” she explains. “I have been exploring my identity as a black woman and a Creole woman for quite some time; coming to an understanding of who I am and what that means in American culture. From the beginning, I chose to do this self-examination through the lens of beauty.”
She notes that hair has been the most recent medium for her work over the past four years.
“Hair for many black women is a racial identifier; it often speaks for us before we have an opportunity to speak for ourselves. Making a conscious decision to alter the texture of our hair is often more than just a fashion decision, it can be viewed as a means of survival, or acceptance, in a culture that promotes and praises Eurocentric beauty standards.” Morris adds “Should a black woman make a conscious decision to go natural, which each generation continues to explore, that can be viewed as a political decision. In thinking about those ideas, and thinking about my Creole heritage, I can’t help but think about masking.”
And while masking absolutely fits the Mardi Gras theme of the exhibition, it is a far more intense experience than that for Morris. “When I make those decisions for myself for the purpose of survival and not fashion, I am absolutely wearing a mask.” She adds “Despite the challenges black people face, we always find a way to let the good times roll.”
The hair used in the exhibition is human, although a few pieces are made with a blend of synthetic and human hair, including an interactive piece that features an ornate mirror.
While Morris has worked with hair in the past, using it to create masks is a new technique. She says she’s made self-portraits from her own hair in the past. “Both this work and my work in general is an exploration of self, and my hope is that through my self-discovery, I am able to contribute to the conversation on blackness and what that means in contemporary culture,” Morris asserts.
James MacDevitt, director and curator of the gallery says that Morris’ work here is a part of the ongoing collaboration between the Cerritos College Fine Arts Department and the college’s technology division and their artist in residence program.
“This year, our department partner was cosmetology, which is not generally one that people associate with Technology, but due to the quirks of Community College funding models, Cosmetology fits within the larger mission of vocational education that is the heart of our Technology division’s pedagogy,” he says. “Being such an atypical program within an Art+Tech framework, we knew were going to get some great proposals and the applicants did not disappoint. Kimberly’s proposal rose to the top for two reasons. One, she really emphasized the materiality of human hair, which meant the students and faculty could actively participate in the process of creation; and two, her proposal went beyond the just physical manipulation of hair to explore the complexities and ambiguities of identity politics that are connected to this extremely visible aspect of both individual and collective identity.”
MacDevitt adds that due to the licensing regulation of the cosmetology industry, students were the ones that needed to handle the bleaching and dying of the hair that was used themselves, which made them an intrinsic part of the exhibition’s creation.
Each piece has its own fascinating transformation of human hair into an art object, but to truly experience the depth of the exhibition requires viewers to spend time with the works.
“I hope that visitors linger long enough to grasp the layers of cultural research that went into the design choices made by the artist. The woven patterns of a number of the masks are inspired by traditional African and African-American hair styles, in addition to being connected to Mardi Gras, and even Commedia Dell’Arte costuming,” MacDevitt relates.
As an example, in the mask “Aged,” the artist used hair that is dyed grey, transforming, as MacDevitt says “a common referent for physical decline into a kind of symbol of super-heroic wisdom.”
In other masks, the colors of Mardi Gras itself are vibrantly used, in purple, green, and gold. In the photographic image of “Passe Blanc” (Passing White), a clutch of blond hair is superimposed over the artist’s face, shaping the kind of “survival mask” Morris speaks of shaping, and obscuring the wearer’s identity.
Morris is the subject posing in all the exhibition’s portrait photographs of these masks, making the wearer in the images appear both black and light-skinned, and hitting directly as what MacDevitt describes as the issue of cultural passing.
As to the interactive mirror piece, MacDevitt notes that here “The viewer is invited to look at themselves in a decorative mirror through one of these masks, notably the only one in the exhibition that is made explicitly from the hair of the artist.”
While this is not the first show the gallery has mounted during MacDevitt’s tenure that includes textiles or other woven materials, or the first to include human-based materials, it’s the first time the gallery has built an entire show around human hair. The distinctive material has brought what he terms an overwhelming response.
“Many are just amazed at the thought process that led the artist to use this material at all, and others are excited about the possibilities of using it in their own work in the future. The correlation between the cosmetological styling of human hair – when it is still attached to the head – and the artistic construction of textile and/or sculptural objects becomes overt in this exhibition, and my hope is that both artists and hair stylists come to recognize the shared sensibilities of their distinctive practices.”
The work behind the exhibition itself was an intense prelude to the creation of the art, including cutting, bleaching, and coloring hair. Morris then referenced both the Mardi Gras itself and the origins of the carnival experience in Medieval Europe, when such events provided a staging for playful reenactments of religious ceremonies, and included those excluded from the hierarchies of the status quo, at least temporarily.
That subversion of power carried the thematic elements of Mardi Gras into marginalized communities of color – including New Orleans. This heritage serves as a fertile background for Morris’ own linkage of hair with power, race, and inequities.
In her proposal for the residency, Morris said that hair, particularly for people of color, is a “racial identifier, which speaks for us before we have an opportunity to speak for ourselves.” Hair then, and society’s perception of it, is almost the polar- opposite of a mask, which obscures identity. In this exhibition, the artist successfully binds these two seemingly disparate themes – of identifying and obscuring, and in doing so, she offers an opportunity for a real discussion of racial perception and societal opinions on beauty and acceptability.
While born and based in LA, Morris is deeply and richly aware of her multi-ethnic Creole heritage, and says being of both African and European descent has influenced the ways in which she experiences society and its perceptions of beauty. She’s translated all of this into her art.
In short, the exhibition is both beautiful sculpturally and highly prescient and involving socially and politically. And, with the season of Lent and reflection post-Mardi Gras upon us, there’s no better time to examine the questions Morris brings up and to see this startlingly lovely and intense exhibition.
Cerritos College Art Gallery
Fine Arts, Room 50, 11110 Alondra Blvd, Norwalk, 90650