Much like my contemporaries as a student at Hampton and Columbia universities in the 1970s, my hairstyle was an afro, as the lengthy locks were called and popularized by Black Power activists such as Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, among others, to symbolize the “Black is Beautiful Movement” of that era.
Now, a plethora of natural hairstyles are back, booming and hugely popular as a beauty statement among African Americans, which Kokomo artist Shailyn Nash marvelously depicts in her triptych IUK senior thesis exhibition piece titled “Our Hair, Our Story, My Story.”
Her artwork has gone viral, thus making Nash an internet social media sensation. Two weeks ago on Twitter, she had 35,000 retweets and 200,000 likes. Nash also made it to The Shade Room on Instagram, which has 25.2 million followers, including celebrities, which she is fast becoming.
“My artwork is getting quite a bit of attention online — Twitter, Instagram — my phone has been ringing nonstop,” she says. “What I love most about the reaction is that while people find it beautiful, they felt the meaning behind it,” said Nash, a senior in the new media, art, and technology (NMAT) program.
One of her professors asked during her Indiana University Kokomo downtown art gallery photoshoot, “How does it feel to be a star?”
“It’s incredibly awkward and overwhelming,” she replied. “My family, we are all very private people, so to have this much attention is very new.”
The attention is based on what her artwork is saying, Nash contends.
“Yes, people will look at it and think it is beautiful, but mostly people feel the piece,” she explains. “People say it inspires them and has even moved them to tears. The piece has started conversations. Everyone is so, so proud. They tell my mother, ‘You know your baby is a star!’ Everyone says it.”
So, too, is Nash’s muse and professor of New Media & Technology, Aaron Pickens.
“I love it — not only visually but conceptually,” he told me. “She found a wonderful way to communicate her concept. It’s clear enough, but it is also nuanced, and that is a difficult balance as an artist. It’s open to interpretation.”
J.C. Barnett III is a fellow artist and IU Kokomo Black Student Center director.
“She has this incredible gift for capturing the intrinsic qualities of the Black woman,” he opines. “And her emphasis on features, such as hair and lips, magnify those qualities to the fullest extent. She has the capacity to ‘break the rules’ utilizing mediums that few people would ever think to put together. Her artistic expression flows out of who she is and what she sees in herself.”
Nash writes in her senior thesis about her artwork: “Throughout history, natural hair has played an integral role in the Black community, from beautifully textured coils to our intricately designed braids.
“Traditionally speaking, natural hair, more specifically braiding and braided hairstyles, were used by slaves as maps to freedom, to transport food, and even as a bonding agent. The act of braiding became a time for us to deepen bonds and learn from others. In a sense, natural hair is our crown, a sort of glue that draws our community together.”
She continues, “I use my art to celebrate the things that connect us, things that were once used against us. With this series, I intend to portray both the beauty of natural hair as well as the overwhelming sense of community it comes with. I want viewers to gain a better understanding of how important natural hair is to the Black community.”
Research was beneficial for her, allowing her to learn how African Americans have gone through cycles with natural hair. Black natural hair styles have exploded in popularity in recent years among both men and women.
“We went through a phase where everyone was straightening their hair,” she recounts. “Straightening, of course, is damaging to our hair, so going natural, everyone learned to appreciate their hair more. Once you realize how beautiful natural hair is and can be, you almost don’t want to straighten it anymore.”
“What other hair defies gravity?” Nash extols. “I can braid it, I can twist it, I can wear an afro, a puff and I can straighten it. I can make my hair mimic other hair. It is truly magical.”
So is Nash, according to her proud parent.
“I’m not surprised by everything that’s going on. I’ve always known she’d be great,” adds her mom, Janet Christie. “Greatness is the positive impact that you have on others and the ability to influence others to do the same or better. She is not only an exceptional artist, but she is an awesome human being. She’s kind, considerate, loving, compassionate, respectful, driven, determined, beautiful inside and out.”
After she graduates in May 2022, Nash wants to be a professional artist and plans to be based in Kokomo.
“I hope eventually to create a space in Kokomo where creatives can grow and learn,” she said. “People ask me, ‘Are you going to leave Kokomo? You have to leave Kokomo.’ I feel like there is a stigma that in order to be successful, you have to leave. I don’t feel that way, and I don’t want others to feel that way. I want to create success in Kokomo.”
The Maynard Report is written by Maynard Eaton. He is an eight-time Emmy Award-winning journalist now based in Kokomo, and national communications director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He can be reached at email@example.com.