Arts·Q&A

The stories this hair could tell: How Coco Framboise is celebrating Black women's beauty and lives

Framboise's latest performance Afro-Dite: HairLoom honours her community and family — including her mom, who makes a special appearance.

Framboise's latest performance Afro-Dite: HairLoom honours her community and family — including her mom

Coco Framboise (Nikola Steer) performs Afro-Dite: Hairloom Friday, Jan. 18 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (www.ago.ca)

I have these childhood memories of my mum doing my hair. Early in the morning while I was half asleep, she would often begin braiding my hair for school. Sometimes she'd do three big braids, other times an array of smaller single plaits. Cornrows were applied for special occasions. Multi-coloured clips and baubles would be used as adornments. These are memories that have grown in significance over the years as I reflect on the sacredness of the ritual, the intimacy of the process and also the artistry that it invited. In a way, my hair was a canvas for my mother to experiment and apply her own aesthetic and creativity.

These memories are part of why Afro-Dite: HairLoom caught my interest. (The performance is happening Friday evening at the Art Gallery of Ontario.)

Conceptualized by the multidisciplinary artist and burlesque performer Nikola Steer (a.k.a. Coco Framboise), it is a poetic contemplation of Black hair and its meaning. Occurring inside the Mickalene Thomas: Femmes Noire exhibition where Black women are centered in grand, luxurious, larger than life portraits, Steer's mother will join her onstage to braid her hair. While braiding, she will weave in textures and textiles from Steer's life as well as items that Steer has gathered from other Black women. Each item came to Steer with a story about its meaning and significance. A soundtrack of these stories and voices accompanies the performance.

It's an interesting time to present HairLoom. Just last year, a teacher with the Ontario Peel District school board made headlines when she posted a photo on her Instagram mocking the braids of a young Black student. Three years earlier a Black student was allegedly sent home because her natural hair was deemed "too poofy" and "unprofessional" by the school's principal.

Here in Canada, Black hair has often been the flashpoint for a larger and deeper conversation around anti-Black racism and the way colonialism has seeped into our very understanding of beauty. Crafting a space for Black women's hair in a public gallery and illustrating the ways it can bring us together through intimate and intergenerational connection becomes — in this climate — a healing and defiant tribute. It also makes me think back to my own childhood memories with even more reverence.

HairLoom is the third part of Coco Framboise's Afro-Dite series. I spoke with her on the phone earlier this week about the project, the memories that inspired this edition and how her performance fits into a larger discourse around Black women's hair.

Coco Framboise (Nikola Steer) in rehearsal for Afro-Dite: HairLoom. (Photo: Shashu Dawkins/Courtesy of Nikola Steer)

Tell me about Afro-Dite: HairLoom.

This piece nods back to my childhood hairdos of wearing a few big braids that my mother would put into my hair. I had the idea sort of bouncing around in my head, and when I heard that the AGO was going to do a Mickalene Thomas exhibit, I boldly reached out to them to consider me for auxiliary programming.

I had seen Mickalene's work in March for the first time in Seattle when I was taken to an exhibit called Figuring History at the Seattle Art Museum. I was so transfixed by seeing women who looked something like me, but presented in multiple rooms of an enormous scale. Not only was it wonderful to see these women rhinestoned but also that material is very familiar to me in my work as a burlesque artist. Many of us are encrusted in rhinestones — our costumes. I ended up responding to that work and doing my second Afro-Dite piece last July. It featured a rhinestone afro.

Mickalene Thomas. Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2009. Art Gallery of Ontario. (Photo by Vivian Rashotte/CBC)

Could you tell me a little bit about the concept behind the Afro-Dite series?

The first piece was Afro-Dite Black Betty. I presented at the Toronto Burlesque Festival in 2017. And that piece involved using three versions of the song "Black Betty" starting with a gritty early version that was in a blues style. The second version was the very popular rock version by Ram Jam that a lot of people think of as being the original, and then a third version that was done in electro swing style, and they stitched these three versions together.

My piece involved walking out on stage with a giant golden sparkly afro pick with a fist as the handle and I danced my way through these three versions and shifted the piece from being a cute, benign, burlesque cabaret number into something that was becoming more and more defiant and celebratory as I went along. And at the end of that piece, I invited a number of other performers of colour who were nearby and in the wings at the time, and asked them if they would mind holding space with me, fists up.

They did, and the audience then joined me in that moment of focus.

From the July 2017 performance of Afro-Dite Black Betty. (Photo: Viktor S. DeVice: Courtesy of Nikola Steer.)

It was a really poignant piece at the time because there was — and frankly there always is — so much going on in the media with people of colour encountering law enforcement.

In my artistic life, in my burlesque life in particular, I think I've been a Black person that a lot of people are really comfortable with. And I'm the kind of person who can slide into a lot of spaces that some other Black people have had more challenge accessing. And I wanted to take a moment to just drive the point home that I've been Black the entire time.

And while there are some pros for people being comfortable with me, and I ultimately do want people to be comfortable with who I am, I also want them to see that I do have a point of view on these things and I have lived experience with some oppression.

So is that a thread that runs through the entire Afro-Dite series?

Yes. It is a series about Black beauty and Black lives.

Tell me about the community stories that we'll be hearing during the performance.

The first piece that I received, the individual is multiracial and the textile comes from a romper that was made by that person's white grandmother with whom this person was very close as a small child.

This was a favourite romper and the grandmother allowed the child to choose the fabric. It's yellow, bright yellow fabric with green cute alligator characters on it. Over time, this grandmother started to vocalize a lot more feelings about what Black women can and cannot do with their hair or should or should not do, including bleaching it blonde. And this person — as they grew and as their hair became more kinky and as they started to identify as a person of colour and include that in their multi-layered identity — grandmother was starting to feel more challenged and tensions started to grow in this relationship.

This grandmother is described as coming from a small town and being a Trump supporter, and even though this person will still be loved as grandmother, that relationship is very strained. This person felt that grandmother was still kind of focused on the grandchild that had been there but didn't have space for the adult that this artist had become. And I thought that was sad but an important story to tell.

Has your mom ever performed with you?

No, this is the first time.

Is she nervous?

Yes, she's nervous! I was very surprised to hear that today. We had a big team meeting and my mother arrived to do the first test braid and she mentioned being quite nervous and I was pretty surprised by that. But then also delighted to see how quickly she braided them. She thought that perhaps she'd be rusty. She hadn't done it in many, many years. But then boom — it was done.

Childhood photo of Nikola Steer. (Photo: Dr. Karl M. Steer/Courtesy of Nikola Steer)

When you were a child, how did you feel about your braids?

At the time I think I was pretty neutral to them. You know, that's just my hair. When you're a little kid you don't have necessarily very many points of reference. You know these are your parents. This is your house. This is your life. This is your hair.

As I grew, and as I started to develop crushes on people at school, then it started to become more of a thing because I started to think about what other people were thinking of me. I remember being really uncomfortable going to school, having a crush and it also being winter and I had to put a toque on. My hair was in a number of big braids that were anchored with baubles, these round ornaments in the hair. So putting a toque on, on top of that, all you could see were these knobbly bits. It wasn't what my Caucasian friends had when they put on their winter hats. So I felt awkward and strange. I didn't hate them, but I just — I remember starting to wish that I could have input on what the hairstyle was. But that wasn't really the dynamic. It was just, you know, my mother said sit down and so I sat down. You don't talk back. That was the dynamic. You do as you're told, and I did.

Black women's hair has become such a huge part of public discourse. Is there anything that you hope that this performance will add to that conversation?

I know that there is a lot of discussion or a lot of passionate feelings about what should or shouldn't happen with this hair that we have. Some people think that the hair should just stay natural as it grows out of the head. Some people don't realize how many different hair types there are.

For me, I treat it as sculpture medium. I do put relaxer in my hair. And I do that not to fit in with any particular beauty standard — I'm not trying to, you know, make all my curls go away. I don't hate my curls. I love my hair. But I also really like the opportunity to play with it, to make sculpture to express myself.

I am aware of pressures and judgements about my choice to do that with my hair. I think that it's important to leave space for a variety of experiences. Different people feel different ways about hair. Different people feel different ways about connection to culture and legacy. We need to leave space for that variety of experiences. Sometimes I wish that there was a little bit more ease about that.

But with this piece, it's not just the hair that I'm thinking about — I'm thinking about how we all are connected to each other. I feel very honoured to have these stories in my hair. There are pieces that connect to loved ones lost. There are pieces that connect to business and prosperity. There are pieces that connect to people's spirituality, their sense of worship and altar. There are so many different kinds of pieces in this hair and it's heavy. Heavy hangs the head. I just I hope that I can honour my community and my family.

Coco Framboise performs in Afro-Dite: Black Betty. (Photo: Viktor S. DeVice/Courtesy of Nikola Steer)

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Coco Framboise (Nikola Steer). Afro-Dite: HairLoom. Friday, January 18 at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. www.ago.ca.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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 and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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