PARIS – Ever seen a human scalp transformed into a drumhead? Or a shrunken head with its lips sewn shut to keep the dead from casting spells from beyond the grave?
With their hair uncannily preserved, these centuries-old trophies seem to have retained all their eerie powers. They are some of the key pieces of the exhibition The Art of Hair: Frivolities and Trophies that recently opened at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris and lasts until July 14, 2013.
"Hair comes from the body’s darkest intimacy, it continues to grow after you’re dead --or so it is believed-- and if you cut it, it grows back..." explains Yves Le Fur, the curator of this mesmerizing exhibition at Paris’s museum of indigenous art, cultures and civilizations. "That is why ancient civilizations attributed magical powers to it."
Le Fur designed the exhibition as a sort of rite of initiation, where visitors start with mere ornamental whims and work their way to loss and grief, with the nicely curled hair… of a mummified head. "It’s a kind of memento mori that reminds us of how precarious our passage on earth is," Le Fur comments.
From the Jivaroan warriors who shrank the heads of their enemies, down to Native American Sioux who adorned their clothes with locks of hair, they all believed they were absorbing the strength of their former owners.
Hairy trophies were worn as necklaces, bracelets or belts and used to distinguish the most outstanding hunters. In the Pacific Islands, tribesmen would braid locks of hair around the handle of their clubs, and tribe leaders around their scepters, because they believed it would increase their arm strength.
Hair was put in amulets, as illustrated by an Australian circumcision knife whose sheath is adorned with hair.
The art of hair
The fact that this is a part of the body that does not rot makes it the perfect medium to talk to the eternal gods, or to deceased ancestors. It may also be the reason that magical powers were imputed to hair, even in societies that were not big on headhunting.
The Frankish kings, who famously sported their hair long, forbade their vassals to wear comparable manes. At King Louis XIV’s court, when wigs were all the rage, the rule of thumb was: the more impressive the hairpiece, the greater the prestige of its owner.
Flowing or messy hairstyles are also often a fantasized expression of wild femininity. The hair of a woman becomes a net, a trap, a prison ... meaning that women with their hair down become seductive sirens luring sailors to their death -- or witches.
According to Greek mythology, Medusa, whose hair was interwoven with snakes, could turn to stone anyone who gazed upon her. Joan of Arc, accused of witchcraft, had her head shaven by guards before she was burned at the stake.
The theme of hair continues to exert a puzzling fascination on society, even today.
Neither hair nor there
"What happens when you get a haircut?" asks French philosopher Roger Pol-Droit in his book Aller chez le coiffeur ("Going To The Hairdresser"). "There’s this belief that your hair is linked directly to your thoughts and that these change once you’ve been to the hairdresser. Getting your hair done is the equivalent to getting your soul done – meaning your soul has become unrecognizable, useless; meaning you’ve become a stranger to yourself."
Nowadays, women strive to eradicate every hair on their body using laser or pulsed light, while men pluck their thighs and torso. Our hair has never been so important to us. "We're a bit like Barbie dolls whose hair grows at the turn of a knob," says Odile Gilbert, one of the most famous haute couture hairstylists. This also means that those who start to lose their hair, because of old age or sickness, are doomed to be somewhat excluded from our image-obsessed society. Like the Nazca people, a pre-Inca civilization (circa 100 BC), hairdressers have started using "extensions" to boost both heads and self-esteem.
From Samson, whom Delilah symbolically castrated by cutting his braids, to Rastas and their dreadlocks, the idea persists that hair retains the vital energy of its owner.
See photos from the exhibition here.