A review of Braiding Braiding, a web-based exploration of African hair brading, directed by Nontsikelelo Mutiti and Julia Novitch
Nontsikelelo Mutiti, Visual Artist and Educator
Julia Novitch, Graphic Designer
Sheila Chukwulozie, Producer and Research Artist
Nontsikelelo Mutiti and Julia Novitch
Braiding Braiding is an experimental publishing project, part of an ongoing research project centered on investigating African Hair Braiding as a marker of diaspora and a form of technology. The primary audiences for this work are individuals who identify as Black or African and for whom African Hair Braiding spaces are an essential part of how they experience community and self-care. Braiding salons across the world are important social spaces that facilitate more than just grooming services for clients.
The project was initiated by Zimbabwean artist, designer, and educator Nontsikelelo Mutiti with U.S.-based designer and programmer Julia Novitch. The duo have collaborated on projects since 2011, producing websites, publication design, and design collateral for commissioners that are primarily Black American and African. The work was presented through Recess Analog, a web-based residency facilitated by Recess in New York City.
“Morning 0” is a durational web-based piece that reenacts a conversation that took place during a hair braiding appointment in Yeoville, Johannesburg. Dialogue between Mutiti as client, two hairdressers, and a colleague who introduces her to the salon unfolds to the audience in real time and cannot be accessed any sooner than the moment in which it took place. Paramount to this digital exploration are the notions of duration—the hair braiding process is itself a time-based work of art—and community investment. During moments of pause or of silence, specially designed glyphs—reminiscent of braiding patterns—populate the conversational thread to continue marking time; braiding takes place under, over, during, and throughout the conversation. Hovering over a particular piece of dialogue pulls the speaker’s name through the text like a comb.
The project has been cited in a number of articles and publications, namely Golan Levin and Tega Brain’s Code as Creative Medium (2021), Laura Kurgan and Dara Brawley’s Ways of Knowing Cities (2019), and Binwe Adbay’s “RUKA: Blending URL and IRL with Zimbabwean artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti” (2017).
Braiding Braiding is an appropriate rubric for a project that says it is one thing but always ends up being at least two others. Braiding Braiding is the home for “Morning 0,” written and conceived by Nontsikelelo Mutiti and programmed by Julia Novitch. It is an experimental digital project working hard to translate onto a two-dimensional screen something as multidimensional as a braid (think the feel of the kanekalon, the smell of the oil sprayed onto it).
In “Morning 0,” five different braiding patterns appear on the screen. Each time the viewer clicks the patterned block, a new one appears. As the conversation continues, the negative space in the pattern flips, giving the viewer a new perspective on the braid. The braider can execute the same pattern, but tension, color, and thickness of hair give the pattern multiplicities. There are several shapes that pop up—fragments that make metaphors of the different geometries built in those hair salons.
J.D Okhai Ojeikere is a Nigerian artist most famous for documenting some of the most elegant hairstyles to come from the imagination of fashionable Nigerian women with time on their hands. The images turn the head into a synecdoche for the body as it fills the whole page, just like the body of an essay. The head is not just the first part; the head is now the only part. It’s the only thing in sight because the roads braided vertically and horizontally show the language of braiding code—yet, the manual is not shared. In Mutiti’s project, braiding is also never explained. Nothing that is being done is ever explained. It is woven just like Solange’s song “F.U.B.U” is written. For Us By Us.
The design of the project shows that the attempt to translate the braid onto the screen can be done without flattening the thickness of the braid onto the fragility of the glass. In Mutiti’s project, the breaks in between what seems like the continuous weaving of the braider’s fingers mimic the breaks in between acts of physical weaving itself: breaks that are either for resting, or brushing out the kanekalon, or picking the attachment, or boiling the hot water—all braiding steps that are most familiar to the most braided women on earth. We know what’s happening when certain breaks are taken, specific moments within a big moment of “getting one’s hair braided.” Mutiti’s project captures how the big moment of “braiding” itself often breaks away from the actual act of twisting three sections of hair into one. In Nigeria and around the world, the moment of “braiding” itself becomes a moment to catch up on Whatsapp broadcast messages that have gone unread. It becomes a moment to hear my braider’s thoughts on the upcoming elections, or to listen as she uses the long time we spend together to give me advice on picking the right men. In the silence of the twists, we interact with our very separate lives that still manage to weave into this one big moment of braiding.
In the project there’s a moment when the person being braided switches from asking about the braid to asking about the beads. Some people may never know when the shift occurred; others may be so steeped in the world of braiding that they cannot imagine that there are people who will never know. The whole conversation is contextual; it cannot be fully or foolishly theorized because language around braid and bead already operates as code. Thinking of values and ethics as a kind of language. Thinking of habit like a language. Familiarity. Knowing that the hairdresser has done the hairstyle before is what it feels like to be familial. The braider gets a chance to do the work better and faster, and the braided gets ready to receive the glow-up. The cycle is complete.
The Japanese term “Shibui” might be applied to this—the beauty of everyday objects referenced in the way everyday conversations arise between the ones who make the hair and the ones who get the hair made. In Mutiti’s project, the ordinariness of Black hair being woven is elevated out of the trenches that may have once signified the unimportance of Black hair being woven. What must be maintained so often and so frequently is probably alive. Like a houseplant, Black hair must be tended to with green fingers. And because there is pain in each strand being pulled into order, the women who make the hair often balance it with a silent subconscious vow to alleviate their customer’s sufferings, with gist, romantic advice, or Nollywood films. The exchange is never taken lightly. Mutiti’s work is an offering that intends to make that exchange known in whichever hyper-digitalverse it may appear. She insists that any world she will be participating in will be a world that makes room for Black women like her to stroll in one way and leave another way. It’s true: the lessons at Braiding Braiding are so important, they have to be said twice.