by Anna Leahy
At the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, I am disappointed that I cannot take photographs of the specimens on display. At first, I think it is out of respect for the dead that photography is prohibited, for many of the artifacts are human bodies or body parts. But you can see the Soap Lady, the Hyrtl Skull Collection, and the case of slides of Albert Einstein’s brain on the museum’s website. The museum’s Instagram is brimming with unnerving images. I end up taking notes on the contents of the cabinets. After meandering the permanent collection, which the museum has called “disturbingly informative,” I wander into the room that’s used for temporary exhibits and find Woven Strands: The Art of Human Hairwork, a gathering from private collections of bouquets, wreaths, jewelry, and other keepsakes made of human hair, glass beads, and wire. As opposed to our flesh, our hair doesn’t decay, so hair is good material for sculpture. In the nineteenth century, this type of domestic artwork became a popular form of mourning, a physical part of themselves that women left behind and other women reshaped. Women in England and the United States could find patterns for flowers and wreaths in magazines. The museum allows photography of temporary exhibits, but the glass and lighting make difficult for me to render.
Popular too, back then, was after-death—or memento mori—photography, especially as cameras became more portable and affordable in the second half of the century. People often died and were waked at home, and families would pose with the deceased, a last chance to capture the family as a whole. Not moving at all, the dead person would often appear sharper than anyone else in the frame. Death was domestic, and there seemed nothing unusual then about these photographs or hair weavings that strike today’s viewer as creepy.
One piece of human hairwork is a wreath of flowers and leaves. The flowers are complete, not only with petals but with pistils and stamens as well, a wholehearted attempt at verisimilitude, making one natural thing look like another. The detail is exacting, excruciating even. It is impossible for me to not see them as both flower and hair simultaneously, unless I step far enough back and try to forget. There must be a couple dozen types of plants represented here. A bird stands on a branch, and four tiny wax eggs sit in a nest the size of a flower.
Another horseshoe includes the artist’s initials and date: AIW, 1882. I realize that these strands must be many women’s hair under these glass domes. In fact, I see the “Framed key to fifty-three hair donations,” a map drawn with pen on a large sheet of blue-lined paper. It has a crease down the middle from folding. Circles and flowers are labeled with women’s names. There’s little Emma Williams and Amy A. Williams, with Mother jotted above the latter. I imagine they died together, the result of childbirth, but I don’t know. I don’t know how any of these fifty-three women lived or died. Still, their names were recorded, their hair identified. Amy Ida Williams is the artist, though her name does not appear on the museum’s label for the artwork. The artist who made the wreath with the bird isn’t credited either. On her map, Williams notes her own hair was “picked one by one from the combings.” I imagine fifty-three envelopes full of hair laid out on her table.
When I think back on this exhibit later, Eleanor Wilner’s poem “The Girl with Bees in Her Hair” comes to mind. In that poem, the black-haired girl arrives by mail in the form of a photograph, an image of the girl, not the girl herself. That’s unlike the hair art, which is part of the women themselves. But I don’t feel as if I know those Victorian women as I would have if I’d viewed photographs of them; their hair is more removed from them, no longer resembles them. The girl in the photograph in the poem carries a basket of flame-colored flowers. The photograph, though, is otherwise “done in grays, light and shadow,” which strikes me at first like the range of women’s hair color in the Mütter Museum exhibit but is probably black and white photography.
The speaker of the poem imagines the girl’s life in ways I couldn’t imagine the lives of the dead women whose hair I saw, in part because a photograph implies a scene. A window in the house behind the girl flies open, and
[…] the bees
began to stream out from her hair, straight
to the single opening in the high façade. Inside,
moments later—the sound of screams.
Of course, the girl looks up, and
She shook her head, her mane of hair freed
of its burden of bees, and walked away,
out of the picture frame, far beyond
the confines of the envelope that brought her[.]
I’m reminded that Natasha Trethewey ends her poetry book Bellocq’s Ophelia, which is very much about photography and about women, similarly: “Imagine her a moment later—after / the flash, blinded—stepping out / of the frame, wide-eyed, into her life.”
The hair in the Victorian artwork is from white women, and I imagine the girl in Wilner’s poem is a white girl, perhaps because Wilner is white or because I am white. Trethewey’s Ophelia is mixed race, a composite she imagines of women E. J. Bellocq photographed in the early twentieth century. She imagines Ophelia like herself. In fact, in an interview with Smartish Pace,Trethewey says of the persona, “I’m looking at it as a piece of material culture to see how it reveals something about the moment in which it was created; at the same time, I’m certainly responding to it out of my own contemporary moment […] based on my own experience of the world.”
Months after I see the Victorian hairwork, Elizabeth Acevedo wins a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for her YA novel in verse, The Poet X. She mentions in her acceptance speech that she earned her MFA at the University of Maryland, where I earned my MFA years before she did and where my assumptions about the whiteness of poetry were reinforced even as my skills as a poet grew stronger. Is the black-haired girl in Wilner’s poem someone with hair like Acevedo’s, not hair like mine, not hair like in the Victorian women’s artwork?
In my mind’s eye, that girl with the bees having just flown out of her hair is the image I have when I watch Acevedo’s performance of “Hair.” Acevedo opens, “My mother tells me to fix my hair. And by fix, she means straighten. She means whiten.” And then the concept of stranded leads her to cultural memories, which is something at which critics say Wilner excels. The “wild curls” others see are Acevedo’s own “breathing,” and flattening hair is “swallowing amnesia.” The poem feels to me like a swarm rushing through the window. At the end, she says, “All I can reply is, You can’t fix what was never broken.” And I feel the sting, the implication, the incrimination.
When I look for African-American artwork that uses human hair, I discover artist Sonya Clark, a professor at Amherst College. The Comb Series uses black plastic combs as its material, spiraling into “Lexie’s Curl” and fraying into “Split Ends.” In other work, she sculpted a hand from hair and added an afro to the head of Abraham Lincoln on a five-dollar bill. The Hair Craft Project brought stylists together to craft the hair on Clark’s head so that she “became a walking gallery” and to create a version with thread on canvas as “a permanent example of the craft.” I should have found Clark’s art before now, but I found the Victorian women’s hairwork instead and almost stopped with that.
Clark’s next exhibit is at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, less than two miles from where I saw the other hairwork last year. The museum’s website describes the exhibit: “Her body of work is a re-telling and calling back of redacted history, using music, light, and hair—the literal fiber of her being—to simultaneously look at the past and present while hinting at the future.” The exhibit I saw at the Mütter Museum looked only at the past; it didn’t disturb me. I need to reckon differently with the past—it’s disturbing—as well as with the present and future.
Anna Leahy is the author of the nonfiction book Tumorand the poetry collections Aperture andConstituents of Matter. Her essays have won top prizes from Los Angeles Review, Ninth Letter, and Dogwood. She directs the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chapman University. See more www.amleahy.com.