All Power to the Fro!

(Post by Rachel Yates, Curator Pacific Cultures). While studying history in high school I loved the look of Angela Davis, American activist and feminist.  A key part of this look was her afro!  I came to admire the afro again this year, this time from the Fijian buiniga.

 Fiji Buiniga

Fiji Woman by Brett Jordan, 2011
Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Over the last four months I have been fortunate enough to work as a curator with the Pacific Cultures Team at Te Papa Tongarewa. I have learnt so much and have found the position an exciting one, it’s been awesome connecting objects to stories, people, and places and witnessing how objects continue to have a life here at the museum.

While I am a post graduate of Pacific Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, this role has been my first in a museum environment.  This post will talk about two items that made me stop and think twice about, of all things, my hair.

In the 21st century and certainly in my experience, it’s common to own or consistently use a friend or family member’s hair straightener when wanting to ‘dress to impress’. When I have a big night out, the standard procedure around my hair includes asking my good friend for her GHD™ (a popular and expensive brand of hair straightener) and booking my sister for half an hour to straighten it.  Hair straighteners circulate regularly like a valuable asset to one’s beauty.  Reflecting on our use of the straightener, my friends and I have a crazy tendency to associate the ‘straight’ with ‘pretty’ and I’m embarrassed to admit it, even a ‘professional’ look.  I could blame it on media or the things that I have been exposed to that try to inform me of what looks good and what doesn’t.  As someone who is aware and critiques messages from mainstream media and also proud of my Pacific heritage, why do I insist on burning my hair to give it an even straighter look? Why do I think that straight looks better than the subtle natural waves of my thick hair?

These thoughts surfaced when I was involved in the preparation of Fiji Day in October of this year and we displayed several items from Fiji, two of which are highlighted in this post. The kali (headrest) and the i seru (head comb).  These objects reminded me to embrace the beautiful characteristics we have naturally and how ideas of beauty have changed over time.

Remember the scene from the movie Memoirs of a Geisha?  The geisha trains to sleep on a takamakura (Japanese headrest), so that they can keep their hairstyle perfect.  As seen in this scene, rice was poured at the base so that if the geisha’s head rolled off the takamakura, rice would stick to the oil in her hair and she would be forced to do her hair again.

As you can see it’s not an idea solely used by geishas, what we see here is something that was used for the very same reason in the Pacific.  Here is a kali (headrest) from Fiji that was designed for Fijians to sleep on so that their hair could keep its buiniga (afro) style.  The Fijian Museum records how in the 1800s, Fijians would marvel at one’s buiniga and the further away from your head one’s hair was, the more impressive their hairstyle.  They would sleep using kali so that they wouldn’t damage the design of their hair.

Kali (head rest) Fiji

How did they create and keep these buiniga hairdos intact?  The second object is that of an i seru (comb).  The Pacific Collection storeroom has a whole cabinet of head combs from all over the Pacific.   Historical records detail how combs were used both decoratively and practically as they assisted in the puffing up of one’s hair.

i seru (head comb) Fiji

I love the fact that Fijians that used i seru cherished their curly hair and the bigger the afro the better!  I wonder what their reaction would be to technologies like that of the GHD™ today and the thousands of Pacific people who use them.  This is not a blog to thrash all of us who do straighten our hair, but a reminder of what was once marvelled at historically by Pacific people and encouragement to rock what’s natural and beautiful about us, including our hair. In words inspired by activist and feminist Angela Davis, whose famous afro is rumoured to have been based on Fijian buiniga: All Power to the Fro!

Fiji, Royal Tour 1952. Brian Brake (photographer)

Fiji Museum. (1980). Highlights of the Collection of the Fiji Museum: A Photographic Catalogue (FijiMuseum Special Publication no. 2).  Suva, Fiji: Author

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