Sandro Miller x J.D. Okhai Ojeikere
My Hair, My Soul, My Freedom
Gallery FIFTY ONE
Opening: Saturday May 7th 2022 from 2 – 6 pm
In the presence of Sandro Miller!
Gallery FIFTY ONE proudly presents ‘My Hair, My Soul, My Freedom’; an exhibition celebrating the diversity, artistry and beauty of black women’s hair through the work of two very different artists. From cornrows, to braids, locks, weaves, natural or straightened hair; the diverse array of black hairstyles (or ‘crowns’, as they are called in Afro-American slang) has an historic, social and spiritual meaning, and plays an important role for the identity of black women in today’s society.
As an autodidact, Miller received his education primarily by studying books of master photographers, most importantly Irving Penn. He started out his career as a commercial photographer and became one of the top advertising photographers worldwide, with clients including American Express, Coca-Cola, Adidas, Nikon and BMW. His editorial work has been featured in acclaimed magazines as GQ, Esquire, Forbes, The New Yorker and Stern.
In his personal projects, Miller focuses mainly on portraiture, with special attention to technical perfection, expression and human connection. His series often address social issues, such as his recent portraits of dying cultures in Papua New Guinea (2019), or his project about black hair styles, entitled ‘My Hair, My Soul, My Freedom’ (2016-17).
Throughout his career, Miller closely worked with his longtime friend John Malkovich, with whom he created among others the film ‘Butterflies’ (2011) and the series ‘the Malkovich Sessions’ (2016) and ’Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich! Homage to Photographic Masters’ (2014, 2017).
Born in Elgin, US in 1958
Lives and works in Chicago, US
My Hair, My Soul, My Freedom
My Hair, My Soul, My Freedom is a celebration of the diversity, artistry, and power of black women’s hair. This project is about highlighting the many ways in which black women embrace their freedom of choice and express their creativity through their hair, no matter the style or texture, whether they wear braids, locs, weaves, or whether they wear it natural or straightened.
Black women haven’t always enjoyed the freedom to wear their hair as they please. Generally, African Americans have been subjected to centuries of racial hatred and oppression in the United States. And when it comes to hair—historically and to this day—black women have been policed and suppressed in numerous ways, including:
– The dehumanizing practice of shaving African women’s hair during slavery, thus erasing signifiers of culture and identity.
– A 1786 Louisiana law requiring black women—both enslaved and free—to cover their hair in public.
– The expectation that black women conform to European standards of beauty by straightening their hair.
– Black girls being sent home from school in 2017, due to school policies that deems their braids “inappropriate.”
– Black women losing or being denied jobs because their natural hair is too “unprofessional” for today’s corporate environment.
For reasons, such as these, I feel this project is necessary.
“With each portrait in this ongoing project, I seek to recognize and honor black women’s power and beauty while celebrating blackness and black lives.”
I asked each woman who sat for “My Hair, My Soul, My Freedom” to share her personal “hair story” with me. Working with a hair stylist and makeup artist, I could achieve a style of hair that my sitter had worn, or would be willing to wear out into the world today. Each woman’s skin was depicted with the same black tone to emphasizes the beauty of blackness, and serve as an equalizer to remove the potential for prejudicial skin color biases, and make hair the focal point. Additionally, my selection of decorative backgrounds was inspired by and includes several African prints. Though some models received striking black backgrounds, I selected the colorful and vibrant patterns for each person based on their individuality and the shapes and colors in their hair.
"It has been my mission, for the past forty years, to travel the world photographing people from every culture and walk of life, capturing their beauty and their stories. “My Hair, My Soul, My Freedom” is a very important part of this mission."
Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich! Homage to Photographic Masters
For this project, Miller went back to the iconic images that have always inspired and moved him in his career as a photographer and recreated these memorable classics with his close friend and muse John Malkovich as his model. Under Miller’s close direction, Malkovich masterly transformed himself into a diverse set of characters, ranging from John Lennon to Marilyn Monroe and Picasso to Dorothea Lange’s iconic ‘migrant mother’.
Next to Malkovich’s brilliant chameleon-like performance, the strength of this series lies in the amount of effort that Miller put into fully understanding the image he wanted to recreate both on a technical and emotional level. The actual shootings in 2014 and 2017 were preceded by 2 years of research to ensure that every detail was correct. Even the sizes of the prints and the way they are framed approaches the original as closely as possible, adding to the experience of viewing this series in real life. The result is not a gimmick nor a parody, but a successful homage to the masters of photography and a report of a brilliant collaboration between two contemporary artist that deserves its own spot in photography history.