Karin Jones at Art Mûr, Montreal

By oualie frost

As a little mixed kid, I’d pray to have darker skin like the beautiful Black women in my life, but with straight “white woman” hair because I was bullied for my frizzy curls and didn’t see many Black women with “natural” hair anyways. Karin Jones’ exhibition The Golden Section, now on view at Art Mûr, examines this desire for hair in proximity to whiteness, as well as the consumption involved in seeking to reach a Eurocentric standard of beauty.

Karin Jones, The Golden Section 8 (detail), 2021, commercially available human hair extensions, vinyl mesh

Past two other exhibitions (Oli Sorenson and Holly King & Sarah Stevenson) and up a set of stairs, The Golden Section occupies a bright room with walls covered in mesh “canvases”, each with dozens of miniscule bundles of strands of bleach blonde human hair painstaking knotted through to form ornamental wefts. My friend says it’s crocheted, and while I don’t know jack about crochet, I know enough about hair and wig-making to take her word for it. Flat ironed, loosely curled, flipped up, braided: these geometric sections of hair are evocative of common styling methods, yet none resemble “natural” Afro-textured hair. There’s a tactility to it all: my friend jokingly noting her “white woman urge to touch all the hair”. There’s also the irony that despite its paleness and the false notions of Eurocentric racial superiority and purity it speaks to in the context of the exhibition, the human hair sourced for each Golden Section is likely of Indian or Chinese descent, not European.

Karin Jones, The Bond, 2024, installation view

The Golden Section inescapably speaks to the histories of Black hairstyling itself, from the very beginning of colonization until now. Preparing for the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, Africans would braid seeds and grains of food such as rice, okra, and beans into their hair to bring to the “new” world, with a determined intricacy that The Golden Section shares. This is especially clear in The Bond, displayed in a room towards the back and tucked around a corner. A wooden mirror frame with hair crocheted into mesh instead of a reflective surface faces a Kanekalon braid and loc recreation of Queen Victoria’s wedding dress. Next to them sits an upholstered chair with white gloves upon it. Instead of buttons, the gloves are fastened with kernels of corn, much like those slaves may have woven into their hair. The chair itself doesn’t escape scrutiny either. Knowing that slave owners would also stuff chairs with the soft hair of their slaves, I had to ask what it was upholstered with? To me, it was Schrödinger’s (c)hair.

There is something particularly cannibalistic about the work. The consumption of Black people, physically and literally, by those in power served to amplify and demonstrate Black subjugation and oppression. The consumption of styling hair (Kanekalon too, but especially human), despite being often used in attempts to escape oppression, still serves to fortify it. Moreover, the sourcing of human braiding/styling hair itself is also often ethically fraught. But can we fully blame Black people for this when our bosses, coworkers, teachers, peers, and strangers seem to demand that we abandon our natural textures and styling methods in order to be respected, taken seriously, seen as beautiful? The Golden Section alludes to this back-and-forth consumption that inevitably stands to reinforce systems of white power on either side.

Karin Jones: The Golden Section continues until April 20.
Art Mûr: https://artmur.com/en/
The gallery is accessible.

oualie frost is a casual artist, writer, and activist currently based in Tiohti:áke/Mooniyang (Montréal) whose writing centers primarily around the art and experiences of Black, mixed-Black, and other racialized people, as well as loose cultural critique. They are a former founding member of the Afros in the City media collective, with writing published on various platforms, including Akimblog, the Rozsa Foundation, and Canadian Art.