Arts·Q&A

Free your mane, free your mind. Shellicka Anglin on why she paints Black hair

The artist talks to Amanda Parris about how learning to love her curls inspired a personal and artistic journey.

Learning to love her curls inspired a personal and artistic journey

Shellicka Anglin: "I want women of colour that have always been ashamed to wear these styles [to] feel beautiful and acknowledge the fact that their hair, our hair, is art and needs to be showcased." (Shellicka Anglin)

The year was 2005 and I was sitting in Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre watching Black women tell stories about their lives to a hairdresser named Novelette. The play was called 'da Kink in My Hair and it was the first time I had seen Black Canadian women's lives given centre stage. It brought me to tears.

The fact that Trey Anthony, the playwright, had used hair as the invitation into these stories made complete sense to me. For generations, Black hair has been more than an aesthetic choice. Afros were a political symbol in the '60s and '70s, locs have been worn by Rastas as spiritual identifiers and more recently numerous women have done "the big chop" — cutting off all of their hair to reject conventional gender standards of beauty.

That's why it's no surprise that Black hair has fascinated a young artist from Toronto named Shellicka Anglin.

Anglin graduated from the Etobicoke School of the Arts (ESA) this past spring, and she's recently been developing large scale paintings of Black hair. The project unexpectedly sparked a personal journey as she began reflecting on her own relationship with her hair.

Anglin's work is currently on display at the Art Gallery of Guelph as part of a group show called Critical Mass. Bringing together both emerging and established Black Canadian artists who work across a variety of mediums, the show explores a variety of issues and topics related to Black identity, representation and activism. The exhibition emerged from a podcast on the lives of Black artists called Black Lives Rooted which Anglin was featured on earlier this year.

I spoke with Anglin about her work and her journey earlier this week over email.

Shellicka Anglin. Mint Green Bantu Knots. 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)

Why did you choose hair as a focus?

Growing up, I was always insecure about my hair, and I never appreciated my curls. [There was an] ongoing battle I had with myself in elementary to straighten my hair so I could avoid all these mocking questions from peers.

Grade 11 was the first time that I had box braids in my hair, which inspired my first big painting. It was an important realization for me because I got to experience how liberating these hairstyles were for myself.

I feel it is so hard to appreciate hair because no matter what we do, we can't change our hair type or curl pattern without damaging it. Society glorifies when our hair is straight so I wanted to focus on hairstyles that all of us at a point in our lives have felt uncomfortable about.

Instead of hating my hair I began to accept the fact I am blessed with the hair I have.- Shellicka Anglin, artist

I feel like people of colour are victims of this ongoing cycle that we face (having a hairstyle which is a part of our culture and being shamed or mocked for wearing it, but at the same time you also have celebrities getting praised for wearing the same style). I want to make sure credit is being given where it is due.

Tell me more about your own relationship to your hair.

Almost all my life I've always had a love/hate relationship with my hair. I hated how it looked, my curl pattern, just about everything. I think trying to figure out which hair products work best in my hair helped me to stop comparing my curls to other females' curls. Instead of hating my hair I began to accept the fact I am blessed with the hair I have.

Tell me about the colours that you choose in your paintings.

Before I even start to paint, I plan on which colours contrast well together for that specific painting. A lot of thought goes into how well the colour of the hair complements the colour of the skin. Other times I have a desire to use a certain colour and I just base the painting [off] my intuition. When I first began painting larger scale, I would have such a hard time finishing my painting; it never looked complete. I would redo the entire painting until I got the "right" colours.

Why did you focus on these hairstyles?

I want women of colour that have always been ashamed to wear these styles [to] feel beautiful and acknowledge the fact that their hair — our hair — is art and needs to be showcased. I chose these hairstyles specifically based on the fact that they are all protective styles that implement growth.

How did your practice change when you began creating work that is so personal to you?

I had a deeper connection with my artwork. I could see the progression in my paintings as the months went on. I feel like as an artist it's important to make art that is personal and vulnerable. Before I focused on hair, it was extremely difficult to explain a concept that [I] wasn't invested in. I finally felt like I was fighting for something I strongly believed in.

Work by Shellicka Anglin is included in Critical Mass, a group exhibition on at the Art Gallery of Guelph to Jan. 6. (Courtesy of the artist)

How has growing up in Parkdale informed your art?

It's honestly a privilege to be able to come from such a diverse community. Parkdale has exposed me to all these different cultures and people. I've been able to witness the beauty that they possess. I feel like being street smart and conscious of my surroundings has created an ability to interpret things — body language, first impressions. Living in Parkdale helps me to connect to my roots as well as where I come from. I would not have been able to recognize the opportunities that were available for me at ESA if it weren't for where I grew up.

In a recent podcast you described your admiration for the work of Kehinde Wiley. How has his work influenced your own journey as an artist?

Kehinde Wiley was the first artist that I researched at ESA with such amazing realism. He happens to effortlessly showcase the culture of people of colour, and then have these models in the painting replicate classic Renaissance paintings. His work inspires me in the sense of his skill level and subject matter. Kehinde's artwork makes me proud to be Black because he makes being from the hood look so classy and elegant — which is not how it's portrayed by our society.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama greets artist Kehinde Wiley during the unveiling of his portrait at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg - HP1EE2C18700A (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

What has it been like connecting with other Black artists for this show and beyond?

It's so wonderful connecting with Black artists and artists that practice in performing arts. I get to learn about all of their stories which I can relate to in my life but are so personal and unique to that artist. ESA had such an amazing art community, but there were very few Black artists that I could relate to, so it means everything to me to see Black artists in the same position as I'm in.

What are you working on next?

At the moment I've been working on drawings that capture protective hairstyles as well as flowers from different parts of the Caribbean. I'm working on smaller scale paintings right now and focusing on the impact the colours have on my work.

(Courtesy of Shellicka Anglin)
(Courtesy of Shellicka Anglin)

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Critical Mass. Shellicka Anglin, Black Artists Union, Noah Brown, Sean George, Charmaine Lurch, Jamilah Malika, Kosisochukwu Nnebe, Camille Turner, Jan Wade, and Syrus Marcus Ware. To Jan. 6 at the Art Gallery of Guelph. www.artgalleryofguelph.ca

About the Author

Amanda Parris

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.