From Pompadours to Fades, New Art Celebrates Black Women’s Hair

Baltimore-based graphic designer and artist Andrea Pippins talks to Colorlines about her new four-art poster series.

By Julianne Hing Dec 19, 2012

It does not take much to get folks worked up about black women’s hair. For some, their personal choices about their hair become public cultural events. (See: Oprah Winfrey. Gabby Douglas. Viola Davis.) But while black women’s hair is obsessively discussed and debated, it’s rarely celebrated. 

Enter Andrea Pippins. Last week the Baltimore-based graphic designer and artist released "Crowns of Color," a four-poster series of prints which does exactly that. 

Only, Pippins didn’t set out to respond directly to the neverending handwringing over black women’s hair. Pippins, who is an assistant professor of art at Stevenson University, really just wanted some good art on her walls. Newly arrived in Baltimore and with too many bare walls in her home on her hands, she decided to make the kind of art she wanted to see. Art that was inspired by her love of textiles, woodblock prints, old barbershop signs and beautiful images of black princesses like those in the classic children’s book "Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters." Art that celebrated black women’s hair in a "lighthearted" and knowing way. And thus, "Crowns of Color" was born.

Colorlines caught up with Pippins over email, and she shared the inspirations behind "Crowns of Color" and her evolving personal views on hair, as well as why she just might owe her professional career to Halle Berry. 

Crowns of Color is such a vibrant and cool celebration of black women’s hair. Can you talk about your decision to give each woman a literal crown?

Because we so rarely see black women represented as free, pretty and majestic I wanted these ladies to be that in a very lighthearted way, as if they were getting their portraits printed to capture their nobility, but in the style of a barbershop sign or woodblock print. Instead of a precious painting that only one person could own, it would be more in the spirit of propaganda posters that everyone could have and hang in their homes.

Seydou Keïta’s photographs also inspired me heavily because he made everyday people look like royalty. And that’s what I wanted to replicate. These women are fun, fly and beautiful, which to me makes them noble. Initially, the series was going to be called "When They Are Noble" but that suggested that at times they weren’t. I wanted them to always be no matter the circumstance.

I also really like the play on words–the idea that black women refer to their hair as crowns. So the title of the series really leaves it up for interpretation. Is it Crowns of Color because these are royal women of color, or because their crowns are in different colors, or because their hair is in different colors?

How did you settle on these four hairstyles? And can you talk about some of the women who inspired you? Grace Jones and her flat-top fade and Janelle Monae’s signature pompadour? Or the asymmetrical cuts Salt-n-Pepa used to rock? 

I have to be totally honest with you but there is no deep philosophical concept behind the choices of hairstyles. I was simply inspired by various hairstyles throughout modern history and challenged myself to interpret them in the simplest forms without much detail. I am so intrigued by how those artists represented hair with simple lines, flat shapes, and minimal color. I’ve always wanted to create artwork that spoke to that aesthetic.

Also, those are some dope hairstyles worn by some amazingly influential ladies. Grace was rocking the high-top fade/gumby before hip-hop adopted it. The afro represented rebellion towards an unrealistic standard of beauty, and the asymmetric bob was crazy–think about it: Your hair will never grow back the same length unless you cut it all to the shortest length. And then when a black woman rocks a pompadour it defies all gravity, no need to use any hairspray whatsoever. All that greatness needs to be celebrated.

Black women’s hair is so often the topic of cultural anguish and political debate. Most recently Louisiana meteorologist Rhonda Lee lost her job for defending her natural hair. I wonder whether and if so, how, you see Crowns of Color contributing to the neverending conversation about black women’s hair.

With all due respect, I am personally tired of the natural hair conversation in regards to one having to defend the choice to go natural, encouraging someone to go natural, or speaking to it from a place of political debate. 

For me, the conversation has totally shifted. Although my work has always been about embracing natural hair it initially came from a place of, "You should do it, too." I don’t feel that way anymore. 

I think women should be able to do what they want as they wish and that they express their beauty in a way that speaks to them. So now I really want to highlight and focus on how beautifully diverse, stylish, innovative and fun our hair really is. I will add though that the re-emergence of natural hair has elevated hair innovation and style to a whole other fabulous level.

What inspired you to take on this project? 

Two things inspired this project. I wanted to create. These sketches I’d begun earlier in the year were tucked away in a folder in a drawer somewhere and I knew something had to be done with them. Then one day I submitted to the need to create because I’d been creatively repressed for too long. So those sketches were revisited and made into what you see today.

The second part of it was me being a little frustrated with the lack of diversity in affordable art. I had just moved to Baltimore, and had been looking for really fun, lighthearted illustrations of women of color to hang in my space. I searched Etsy and attended a craft fair in DC–I found amazing stuff, but didn’t see a range of work that featured people that looked like me. So this encouraged me to move forward on the series and create work I would want to hang on my wall. 

Crowns of Color is meant to be celebratory, quirky, and a documentation of our culture. Like the barbershop signs from Africa. Although they are simply style guides for the clients who patron the shop they are also reflections of history–a record of what hairstyles were hot at different periods of time in different parts of the continent. I wanted to pay homage to that.

What sparked your interest in graphic design and visual communication? 

My interest in design was sparked by television and a movie. I was intrigued by Halle Berry’s character in "Boomerang" where she was an art director. In the film she was also an artist and an art teacher. When I saw [Berry’s character] Angela I was amazed even though she wasn’t a real person. Before that character, I had never seen a person working in a career where they could be creative, and she was black on top of that!

Around the same time I saw a Saturday morning segment, during the cartoons, about a woman who was an art director at a magazine. Again, I was amazed because she was talking about drawing, and designing, and sharing how all that informed her work as an art director.

Those were my first introductions to design. Then I ended up at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art because I saw the Temple "T" on The Cosby Show. Too much TV but somehow it has guided me to some wonderful opportunities in my life. Design has opened so many doors for me.

On your blog you give encouragement to aspiring black female designers. Can you offer any words of wisdom to young women of color creative professionals who are trying to push out their personal and political creative pursuits? 

My advice to other young women of color creative professionals is to create, create, create! And create high quality work! Visually, in video, art, design, and illustration our stories are not being told, and we can’t keep waiting for other people to tell them.

So I would love to see more young women of color creating videos beyond hair and beauty tips–please, let’s do something different–screen prints, textile designs, magazines, children’s book illustrations, coloring books, et cetera. Then I’d like to see them share those creations. Get that work up on Etsy, BigCartel, on a blog, Pinterest, and craft fairs, submit to print magazines, and enter design competitions. Do amazing high quality work and get that work out there so we can all see it.

For more on Andrea Pippins, check out her website and blog Fly. "Crowns of Color" is available for sale on Etsy