Laetitia Ky, an artist and fashion designer based in the Ivory Coast, has been using hair as a creative means of expression since childhood. In her forthcoming book, Love and Justice with Princeton Architectural Press, she recounts how as a girl she refashioned the white Barbie dolls that were available to her by cutting their hair and with a needle and thread, replacing it with more braidable hair that resembled her own.
These early impulses would reemerge in adulthood when her desire to reconcile the images of beauty promoted by Western society with her own reflection. Love and Justice, a combination of art book and memoir, uses photography and storytelling to showcase Ky’s intricate hair sculptures constructed using her own hair, extensions, wool, wire, and thread. Via her social media accounts, where she has amassed more than 6 million followers combined, Ky uses her hair sculptures to address and create conversations around sex-based and racial oppression of African women, harmful beauty standards, mental health stigmas, and more.
Ky credits her exploration of the online natural hair community with sparking her interest in experimenting with her hair.
“One day, one of those accounts posted a photo album of the hairstyles African women were wearing before colonization and I felt inspired,” she told Hyperallergic in an interview. “They were beautiful sculptures and shapes decorated with gold, pearls, shells. I was impressed and felt the need to experiment with my own hair.”
Her first hair sculpture, Ky said, was a three-foot-tall piece standing high on top of her head.
“I posted it on my Facebook and all my friends and family were impressed,” she said. “I received a lot of encouragement and it made me continue.”
As her practice evolved, Ky’s hair sculptures became more elaborate. “Every time I was posting, I was received more likes, comments, and shares until the day where one of my photo series went viral,” she said. “I shaped my hair as a pair of hands and created a dozen images of those hands doing different actions.”
While they began as purely aesthetic experiments, the feedback Ky received from other Black women impacted and informed the direction her work would take. Ky said she began receiving messages from women all over the world telling her that her social media posts were helping them combat negative messaging about Black women’s beauty. This led her to the realization that the work she was making was inherently political and inspired her to be bolder and more direct with her hair sculptures.
Ky sees her role as a continental African feminist as integral to her work and the issues she addresses in her hair sculptures. She cites the clashes African feminists sometimes have with Western feminists around notions of gender and sex-based violence as another source for her sculpture’s subjects.
“The experience of African women is very different from the experience of Western women,” the artist said. “Here we consider our oppression sex-based because of the genitals mutilations, the strong period stigma, the breast flattening, the strong obstetrics violence, the lack of education for girls, the forced marriage of little girls and so many other experiences we have because of our body and biology.”
“This perspective caused and continues to cause a lot of clashes with Western feminists who take the oppression of women with the gender aspect,” Ky continued. “It is something I can respect but I don’t relate to. As an African artist and feminist, I have the duty to be loud about our perspective that is way too often silenced and forgotten.”
Many of the sculptures in Love and Justice address the particular relationship African women have to sex and gender via photographs and sculptures that address obstetric violence, breast flattening, and female genital mutilation. Ky hopes through her continued experimentation to demonstrate the limitless capacity of Black hair, and by extension Black people, to transform, challenge, and transmute the status quo.