Hairstyle in Nigeria has never been just a style. In addition to restructuring a person’s looks, and reflecting personality, it also had the ability to tell whether a woman was unmarried or not, if a person was of a higher or royal class, or was dedicated to a deity. More importantly, it was also the norm to document the changes ongoing in the immediate environment with intricate patterns bearing resemblance to an event, woven onto hair.
It was a work of art easily accessible within a stone’s throw, whose canvas was freely available and easily carried from one point to the other. The ‘art’ of the hairstyle has been developed over centuries and many African hairstyles could be as precise as any piece of visual art. Also considered part of a hairstyle, was the headwrap — commonly called ‘Gele’ in Nigeria — which has evolved to a major fashion statement at any event worth attending.
The Gele was designed as intricately as a hairstyle—its design reflecting the demeanor of its wearer and the allowance of creative expression in the earlier days. Though the wearing of Gele is commonplace for women in Nigeria, the two cultures especially noted for it are the Yoruba, and Igbo culture where the Gele is usually worn over George Wrapper and blouse.
Eight years after Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1960, photographer J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere started documenting Nigerian hairstyles and developed a collection of 1,000 portraits, simply titled Hairstyles. It was a tribute to Nigerian women moving back to more traditional hairstyles from the European standards of hair straightening which had become commonplace prior to de-colonization, especially in urban areas of the country. The pictures which depicted women without any cajoling to smile or make performatory gestures for the camera, and the artworks balanced so perfectly on their heads they could almost pass for a moving gallery, went on to define his career.
Ojeikere started out as a darkroom assistant in 1954 at the Ministry of Information in Ibadan, Nigeria. He went on to pursue his first job as a studio photographer in 1961 under Steve Rhodes, for Television House Ibadan. Until this day, his photographs are still a reference point for not just the documentation of the hairstyles, but an era they represented. As he slowly processed his film for “Hairstyles,” according to the NYTimes, he began to realize that his collection was not only capturing the abstract beauty of hair, but that he was also creating an anthropological survey of this fleeting aspect of his culture.
A hairstyle called the Onile Gogoro in Yoruba which means tall house or skyscraper sprang up sometime after independence, spiraling close to two feet in the air. It was commonly seen on women across Lagos, Nigeria’s capital at the time; a crown that symbolized the aspirations of a new and striving nation.
Throughout the following decade, hundreds of other braided styles could be discovered throughout the country, each carrying a distinct meaning.
“Coiling Penny, Penny” was a style designed in small sections, looped and decorated with small golden bells. In “Pineapple,” tiny twists sprout from neatly designed rows on the scalp of a woman’s head, closely resembling pineapple skin, probably a tribute to Nigeria’s budding agricultural sector. Matting styles such as the “Didi Adimole” (usually a weave of the natural hair) were, and are still prevalent in Lagos till this day.
The style Nigeria Drive Right has an interesting story to it. According to an article by OnlineNigeria, it was invented in 1972 when Nigeria changed driving from the left to the right. The onidiris (hair stylists) started depicting this in their styles, making the hair flow all the way to the right. The Roundabout, a reference to the road diversion, made the hair flow in a circle.
Ori inu mi ko ma ba ti ode mi je (May my inner head not spoil my outer one) meaning ‘the war has ended’ was popular in 1970, a commemoration to the end of the Nigerian Civil War. Others like the Eko Bridge documented the building of the shortest mainland bridge, while Morinmo just plainly depicted the male phallus in the act of sex.
All-Back is the most popular hairstyle in the history of Nigeria, successfully surviving years and years of fashion transformations and borders for its ease and simplicity. Patewo (clapping hands) reigned supreme as one of the most popular hairstyles in the 90’s, along with the almighty Shuku.
“To watch a ‘hair artist’ going through his precise gestures, like an artist making a sculpture, is fascinating,” Mr. Ojeikere once said. “Hairstyles are an art form.” “All these hairstyles are ephemeral, I want my photographs to be noteworthy traces of them. I always wanted to record moments of beauty, moments of knowledge.”
The late ’90s came along with the advent of artificial hair (attachments) and along with it the Telephone Wire: the curly hairstyle which followed the advent of the telephone in Nigeria, its curly ends hanging loosely in a ponytail from a sturdy gel base. Life since then has experienced a certain loss in the artistry, creativity and expressions hitherto present in hairstyles and the tying of Geles. As more women adopted adding hair extensions to their hair as the modus operandi, still others regressed to the use of chemicals to permanently flatten and straighten their hair.
It was the new millennium, and the influx of foreign media was evident in music, culture and definitely, hair. A new definition of beauty and fashion trends flowed in the wake of the world wide web, and many Nigerian women couldn’t wait to catch up. For a while, the Nigerian hair went on a hiatus, and in its place, the human hair took hold, as if what came before it was akin to an animal. The Brazilian hair. The Peruvian hair. Indian hair. Broadcast messages of hair offered up to idols, packaged and sold. More messages of hair responsible for tied destinies and hidden rodents eggs. Silky, long textures flooded the markets and were exchanged for thousands of naira and Nigeria’s “unmanageable” texture didn’t stand a chance.
It became uncommon in most areas to see women with kinky hair or worse still, with short coily hair, unless you were from rural areas or in secondary school, and the term “Mbeke” was coined—referring to a lack of sophistication in manner of dressing, hairstyle, and behaviour.
Between 2011 and 2013, a change began to slowly trickle in, influenced still by Western media—but for a good cause, and the search for alternatives to constantly split ends and balding heads. Nigerians, and by extension Africans in diaspora, in communion with African Americans began to document yet another era. The past three years have seen the tresses of Nigerian women witness a form of renaissance. With the majority of traditional hair grooming methods lost to the wind, styles are continuously being reinvented with alternatives to prioritise comfort and reflect modern times. The afros are being re-embraced, though not entirely in its stark tightly coiled form. Traditional African hair weaving methods are sometimes done using traditional kiko, other times using softer materials like wool. More contemporary African braiding styles favour loose and long. Well-attired, young women drift about in conspicuous geles in a myriad of textures and colours in an embrace of all thing African.
However, despite the massive return to natural hair textures, the trend seems to show mass conformity to styles deemed cute and already hacked, while the Gele styles witness the battle of the most infinity pleats as opposed to the amateurism, creativeness and cultural commentary of the post-colonial African woman. The 21st century Nigerian woman’s hair, in contrast, is a documentation of a resistance present in styles such as the Bantu Knots which are not only used to create beautiful curl patterns, but are also challenging the notion that silk and straight is professional. The Nigerian woman is still documenting, challenging Eurocentric standards yet again, but this time, with length and volume and presentation.