Two Austin artists are creating space for Black Austinites to celebrate their hair with an exhibit called The Black Hair Experience, which opened in Austin on March 12. The interactive "selfie museum," which has locations in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., continues its Texas tour after opening in Dallas last year.
Whether Black women want to talk about their care routines, celebrate their style against a professional background, or just bask in the spotlight for experimental shots that need never see a social media feed, the museum's co-founders did all the leg work to let the imagination run wild.
Visual artist Alisha Brooks and photographer Elizabeth Austin-Davis joined forces to "transform nostalgic moments of shared experiences into instagrammable spaces that connect visitors to moment from their childhood, the vibrancy of hair in present day, and create memories for them to cherish in future," according to their website. The duo filled several phone booth-like enclaves with props relating to Black hair, creating more than 15 scenes or surrealist backdrops for deceptively effortless posing.
“We have people of different ages, different demographics,” says Elizabeth Austin-Davis. “We have a lot of affirmations and self love. It's all about fun and being able to have creativity in our space.’
To the right of the entrance is a tiny gift shop, filled with not just hair products, but apparel, sunglasses, earrings, and notebooks. Jet Magazine covers grace the wall to the left, saved since the print publication went digital-only in 2014. One cover, featuring Aaliyah, is dated July 23, 2001. The exhibit opens into one central room: one inlet is black and covered with bamboo earrings, and another situates a black salon chair against a graphic wallpaper depicting different Black hairstyles against colorful backgrounds.
Some of the scenes refer to actual settings, but with a little more pizzazz than one could expect in a real life photoshoot. A peachy pink shopping aisle lined with hair products features a prop shopping cart, encouraging viewers via wall decal to “support Black business.” Another pink scene depicts a chic hair salon with classic checkered tiles, while the scene directly next to it deconstructs a retro at-home approach with vintage hot combs and curling or straightening tools suspended above the stove.
Austin-Davis brought her young kids to the opening event, and says she thinks her daughter understands the purpose of the project. Washing hair in their house means dancing, singing, and creating positive associations with hair care.
“We talk a lot about it,” she says. “During her wash days, I always tell her about the experience and why mommy does it. This is the actual first [opening] that they've been able to come to.”
While the Black Hair Experience has been in other states, the collaborators chose Texas as its next destination in part because the CROWN Act still hasn’t been passed after falling through last year. The legislation would have prohibited discrimination based on protective hair styles. On a national scale, the CROWN act has been passed by the House and was read in the Senate on March 22.
As part of the exhibit’s education efforts, it maintains an outreach program with a full-time community manager in every city. Local groups are encouraged to reach out and schedule time for youth to enjoy the space and take a workshop about friendship and self-love through hair.
Located at the Southpark Meadows shopping center in South Austin, the exhibit is set to run for at least 90 days with no official end date. Tickets ($30 GA, $50 with “swag bag”) are available weekends at theblackhairexperience.com.
The pop-up has plans to open in Houston later in 2022.