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In Commemorative Strands, Artise Fletcher Honors Black Women’s Personal Journey with Hair

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Walking into one of Artise Fletcher’s textile workshops, which explore societal beauty standards and individual relationships to hair, audiences typically “come into it skeptical, not knowing what to expect,” she says. Fletcher creates her textiles with an unconventional material—Kanekalon hair. Using synthetic hair to craft ornate tapestries, the artist hopes to shift viewers’ perceptions of the value of hair.

The visual artist, based in Washington, DC, explores the intersections of identity, wellness and sustainability, and how these elements interact with hair as a medium of expression. Today, “all of my work is based in liberation and freedom of expression, and being confident in who you are, as is,” she says.

Fletcher’s first solo exhibition, Commemorative Strands, features textiles, photography and video that explore the cultural significance of Black women’s hair. Inspired by the commemorative cloths of cultures across Africa and the weaving techniques of textile artists in Chinchero, Peru, Fletcher reinvents traditional textiles in her tapestries.

Commemorative Strands is housed at Transformer gallery, a nonprofit visual arts center in DC that features the work of emerging local artists. The exhibition is accompanied by two workshops, an interactive textile activity, and a panel discussion that encourage those interacting with Fletcher’s work to think critically about their personal relationship to hair.

 

Opening up about her artistic origins, “I think I’ve always been creative,” Fletcher says. “Since I was a younger child, my sisters and I were all creative. We all used to draw a lot and just loved music.”

Growing up, her parents chronicled the memories of her youth on camera, capturing moments of joy. Even as a child, Fletcher enjoyed looking back on these photos, and began to document unfiltered snapshots of her life with the support and encouragement of her parents.

“[My mom] used to send me to school with disposable cameras and get them developed for me,” she says. “I still have all of the pictures from middle school and high school — even elementary school.” Early exposure to photography allowed Fletcher to capsule and revisit moments of everyday life, developing an individual perspective to share stories through visuals.

In 2014, after receiving a diagnosis of Topical Steroid Withdrawal, Fletcher sustained significant hair loss. “I have cut my hair before in the past, but it’s different when you want to have hair, and your hair isn’t growing, and it’s falling out,” she says. A loss of agency over her appearance spurred Fletcher to question the pressure that society inflicts on women regarding beauty and hair. “How do you value yourself if you don’t look a certain way?” she asks.

During this difficult period, visual art became a powerful therapy for Fletcher to document the inward pain she was experiencing as a result of the diagnosis. In her art, she “thought to use hair as an object,” rather than a defining part of her identity. To confront the rigid beauty standards that surround hair, the artist weaved synthetic hair into the likeness of a dress.

The dress caught the eye of muralist Rose Jaffe, who curated Fletcher’s first series, It’s Just Hair, in 2017. In this project, Fletcher created portraits of women wearing the dresses made of synthetic hair, laying the foundation for the artworks presented in Commemorative Strands.

 

Throughout her series, the artist chooses to include portraits of women “that are here and living, standing in their power, and showing up as they are.”
Artise Fletcher

Leading up to the creation of her tapestries, Fletcher wanted to preserve the historical significance of the commemorative cloths produced in different countries in Africa. “Commemorative cloths were used to give marginalized groups of people a voice,” she explains, whether for funerary rites or political events. Fletcher produced her tapestries in a similar vein, using her voice to start a new conversation about the value of hair.

“Born Again,” one of the artworks displayed in Fletcher’s Commemorative Strands, is a collage of portraiture and woven hair that honors one woman’s personal journey with her hair, Fletcher says. “You shouldn’t have to be famous to be honored or celebrated,” she stresses. Throughout her series, the artist chooses to include portraits of women “that are here and living, standing in their power, and showing up as they are.”

 

In “Crown Act,” Fletcher explores the politicization of hair in American society. The title of the work is a reference to the legislation of the same name. First enacted by Californian legislature in 2019, the CROWN Act prohibits the discrimination of individuals based on their hair texture or hairstyle at school and in the workplace. At present, 18 states have adopted similar legislation. However, at the federal level, the CROWN Act of 2022 is still awaiting Senate confirmation to enact the law in all 50 states.

In Fletcher’s “Crown Act,” the artist again combines textile and photography to create a tapestry showcasing portraits of women, similar to the collage constructed in “Born Again.” Together, these photos represent the stories of Black women who have been impacted by the weaponization of hair in society, she explains. “We can’t control the hair that goes out of our head, we can’t change it.”

 

To raise awareness on the environmental impacts that synthetic hair has on the planet, the artist partnered with Tiwani Heritage, a company that produces recyclable, plant-based hair. Fletcher’s “Sustainability” is the result of this collaboration. The tapestry is weaved using Tiwani Heritage’s environmentally conscious hair, and is decorated with reproductions of the recycling symbol, emulating a pop art style.

The filmography element to Fletcher’s series provides a glimpse into her creative decisions, and an opportunity to learn about the stories behind her work. “I thought it would be a great experience for people to actually see a little bit of the process in video, just to [see] how tedious and intricate it is,” she says.

Fletcher chose to feature ambient music to accompany this visualization, she explains, so that listeners can sense the feelings of relaxation that she experiences when creating her art. Both in this interactive video, and in the exhibition’s accompanying workshops, the artist designs “an experience for people to join me, in hopefully giving them a spark to go create themselves.”

In total, Fletcher’s assembly of textile art, photography, and videography works toward creating a perspective shift in how society values hair. “The pieces are all talking about something different,” but “the similarity between all of them is what we choose to value,” she says.

In Commemorative Strands, Fletcher empowers her audience to embrace individuality as they embark on their personal journeys with hair.

“You don’t have to conform,” Fletcher says. “It’s okay, you show up as you are.”

 

*****

 

Commemorative Strands is on view until Oct 22 at Transformer, 1404 P Street NW, Washington, DC

Wednesday – Saturday, 12:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.

 

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