Hair and the Head

The incredible range of hairstyles across the African continent speaks to the importance of hair in the personal aesthetic of African men, women, and children. Coiffures mark life events and convey local styles, cultural and religious practices, and political meanings. This is reflected in African arts, where representations of hair communicate status and ethnic origins. Portrayals of the head also often reinforce the concept of the head as the center of one’s being. The Yoruba people believe, for example, that the inner head is a spiritual entity, the center of power, and the location of a person’s life force. Personal altars dedicated to the inner head were once widespread and protected by elaborate containers covered in shells and beads. Representations of hairstyles were often integrated into ritual practice. Among the Mende, masks for the Sande society included elaborate hairstyles as a symbol of ideal womanhood. For many African peoples, hair adornments such as hats, pins, and combs are not only decorative but also convey the wearer’s beauty, power, or social standing. 

In this gallery, works from western, central, and southern Africa drawn from Princeton’s collection of African art are shown together with loans from private collections. Spanning a century, they illustrate the heterogeneity of artists’ renderings of the power of the head. Juxtaposed with these self-representations, Princeton’s renowned Greek Janiform vase is on display for the first time in this gallery to draw attention to foreign depictions of African hair aesthetics.