These 10 Photos Tell A Fascinating Story Of Nigerian Hair

April 11, 2019

Whether you live in a country that offers little context (pronounce; Nigeria), or anywhere for that matter, it can be ridiculously easy to forget where and what you come from.

There’s nothing funny about the fact that the Nigerian Police has an entire division harassing people under the pretext that dReAdLoCks ArE nOt a PaRt Of OuR cUlTuRe. It’s more ironic than anything else. Nigeria doesn’t have a single origin story, but our reverence for our hair is one of the not-so-many things we share.

These 10 photos were taken over the period of 100 years by the British Colonial anthropologist Northcote Thomas, the Nigerian photographer J.D Okpai Ojeikere and other documentarians over time.

They tell the fascinating history of Nigerian hair across three eras; the pre-colonial times, post-independence and the modern period. Your ancestors had way too much swag for SACS.

The history of Nigerian hair, as far as the records show, dates as far back as the 18th Century. This was a time when hair was primarily a status symbol; it was used by nearly all tribes to connote age, class, marital and social status, profession and spiritual affiliation.

Yoruba woman wearing the Agoro hairstyle. Date unknown.

One of the best examples of this use of hair is the Agogo. According to Victoria Sharrow in her book “The Encyclopaedia of Hair: A Cultural History”, “a traditional woman’s style called the Agogo showed the wearer is married. It features a high crest running from the forehead to the nape of the neck.” Younger unmarried women would wear their hair “braided, wrapped, or in other styles that set them apart…

Igbo woman. Arochuku. Photo by Northcote Thomas. 1910-1911.

Photos from Northcote Thomas’ archives are some of the most valuable depictions of Nigerian fashion in the 1910s and 1920s. Women in the Igbo hinterland wore their hair in loose braids, threaded knots known as “Isi Owu” or elaborate braids adorned with ornaments for important occasions.

The photo above was taken of an Igbo woman in present-day Arochuku in 1910. The woman’s coif is nothing short of regal.

According to Ukpuru, a platform that documents Igbo history, the style is consistent with the depiction of women in Igbo art. “Women of the time used ornaments like thread, feathers, shells, bone, wood, beads, Igbo currency, coins, or cloth; mud containing colourful ores, yellow and red camwood powder or paste and palm oil and charcoal were also used.”

Igbo man. Photo by Northcote Thomas. 1910. via Ukpuru.

The Yoruba believe that hair has spiritual qualities. Members of certain sects or beliefs styled their hair to reflect their identity. It is believed that the goddess Osun was the first hairdresser and as such, her priestesses wore the most elaborate styles adorned with a range of ornaments.

Sango, the Yoruba god of thunder and war, is often depicted with braids. His followers still wear those braids today. Dreadlocks were also important; children born with them were believed to have spiritual power.

Priests in certain sects would often let their hair grown wild and into dreadlocks. Primarily, as the photo of a young Igbo man shows, Nigerian men of the era styled their hair as a form of social communication. Fierceness was the only language.

Fulani Woman. 1920s.

If the Igbo women used ornaments, the Fulani hairstyles of the era were downright architectural feats. The nomadic Fulani spread these styles wherever they went – much of sub-Saharan West Africa.

The man, the myth, the legend – J.D Okpai Ojeikere stands by some of the photos from his iconic collection, “Hairstyles”

It’s impossible to talk about the period leading to independence and the decades after without paying respect to Nigerian photographer, J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere. From humble beginnings, rejected by the army, J.D was put on to photography by an uncle and would quickly acquire a taste for anthropological work.

He is credited with taking some of the most iconic photos of Nigeria starting in the 1960s. His magnum opus is a collection of over 1000 portraits titled “Hairstyles”; a collection of portraits of Nigerian hair and headgear he took over three decades.

“Onile Gogoro”. J.D Okpai Ojeikere. “Hairstyles”

The Post Independence Era is when Nigerian hair became a social commentator. One of J.D’s most popular photos is this one of a Lagos woman donning the hairstyle known as “Onile Gogoro” which translates to “tall house”.

Reaching up to heights of one foot, the hairstyle was evocative of the new high-rises and skyscrapers that were showing up in Lagos; signs of growth and advancement in this optimistic new nation.

“Eko Bridge”. J.D Okpai Ojeikere. 1970s.

The completion of the Eko Bridge in 1975, the shortest link between Lagos Mainland and the Island was one of the many major projects after the war. It inspired the Eko Bridge hairstyle which featured one or more braids serving as a link between two or more clusters of woven or matted hair.

Rocking Afro. Late 1980s.

Many things happened in the 80s and 90s. But if there was one thing that tied it all together; it was the demise of the Nigerian middle-class. Soon enough, local standards were replaced by the next best thing. Western culture filled our television sets, salons, the barbershop. This was also the disco era and the first days of hip-hop; the arrogant style of the era influenced many Nigerians. Black Power!

Nadula Virgin Hair. via Nadula.

Hair extensions, commonly called attachments and wigs were the next phase. Blame capitalism or Hoolywood but more people wanted flowing, straight hair and so they bought it. A time of Kanekalon and Xpressions gave way to more expensive human twists, Peruvian and Brazilian hair. These styles pretty much held on through most of the 2000s.

Omoni Oboli. via Kamdora.

People will look back on the last 10 years of African culture as a renaissance of sorts, and it will be deserved.

The last decade or so has been defined by our culture’s interaction with persons of African heritage across the world, and foreign cultures. Within this new movement for Africa to reclaim its pride, Nigerian hair is staging a comeback.

Remember Irun Kiko? Braids are all the rave now. It’s not uncommon to see women with their hair billowing in the wind, or knotted and twisted into preservative hairstyles.

We can all be proud. Nigerian hair’s been dripping for over 300 years.

Segun Akande

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