Often creativity is inspired by conversations with those we are close to, intimacy allowing for revelations that may not otherwise be forthcoming. Back in 2016, Sandro Miller, an award-winning American photographer, and his wife Claude-Aline, were discussing hair, a seemingly prosaic topic. Claude-Aline, an African American woman, shared how she saw her hair as being “the manifestation of my soul past, present, and always on display.” As she spoke an idea began to take shape.
Crowns: My Hair My Soul My Freedom is the result, a three-year project that saw Sandro create over 100 portraits of black women and their magnificent, sculptured hairdos. Crowns is a story that celebrates black women, their power, history and culture expressed in portraits that capture the individuality of the sitter. The photography is stunning as one would expect from an artist like Sandro, his past projects such as Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters, informing our expectations. Each of these portraits is a work of art.
Conveyed within each frame is the essence of the woman pictured, her hurt and joy, extraordinary resilience, self-understanding and determination. Shot against vibrant illustrative backdrops that echo pop art or plain black backgrounds, these portraits allow each woman to express her majesty.
Crowns also features quotes from some of those pictured providing fascinating insights which give the book even greater depth. Women describe their hair with reverence: “my magic” (Ava), “my biggest pride” (Ipeleng), “my chandelier of hope” (Keke). Others share the pain of being segregated or bullied because of their hair. Nia tells that “In middle school my hair was braided and in cornrows. The boys teased me calling me “Ghetto Braids.” I was young and this really hurt.” Tadi says “I was confused as a child because all my dolls had long straight blonde hair. My hair was a short black afro.”
As these quotes demonstrate, Crowns is also a window to a much broader story about the racism black women have been subjected to over many decades. It is through this collection of words and images that Crowns becomes a powerful dissertation on the significance of a black woman’s hair, as a personal statement of style and as a vehicle to understanding the deep emotional, spiritual and ancestral associations these women have to their crowns. As Mimi writes “My hair has a strong connection to my ancestral background, which keeps me connected to the living and the non-living.”
Crowns was shot in Chicago (US), Dakar (Senegal) and Johannesburg (South Africa). In each location Sandro assembled hair and make-up teams and cast the net wide for participants, ensuring diversity. He enlisted the support of American actress Angela Bassett who in her foreword to the book shares her thoughts on the “transformative power” of a black woman’s hair. “No other woman on the planet can express her individuality and creativity via the follicles that cuddle her head like the black woman,” Bassett writes. Sandro’s images are unequivocal confirmation of this.
American poet Patricia Smith’s commanding poem, Nap Unleashed, which was composed for Crowns, encapsulates the struggle and power of black women, presenting hair as a mystical weave of heart and soul, a portal through which black women come to know themselves and assert their power. It’s a brilliant, moving piece of writing. To quote from Nap Unleashed:
When we began, our hair was furious and braided thick against the spit of men. Our chaos crown still razzles, nap unleashed, and we explode, always ourselves again, a single soul, yet none of us the same. It’s neon, razored, crimped and knotted, looped and coiled, it’s all the things but always black, our hair’s the funk, the scorch, Aretha’s growl, it’s sweetly hellish on our perfect heads…
Published by SKIRA, Crowns: My Hair My Soul My Freedom is presented as a hardcover with slipcase, in French and English. The large format allows the portraits to rise from each page, and the image reproduction is faultless.
Beyond its beauty, Crowns is a book that will spark important conversations and bring new understandings to what it means to be a black woman.
Sandro Miller – Crowns: My Hair My Soul My Freedom
Publisher: SKIRA in English and French editions
Dimensions: 30.5 x 35.1cm
Colour illustrations: 140
Size: 30.5 x 35.1cm