https://www.instagram.com/nokukhanyalanga

You are born in America and raised in South Africa but currently study in the Netherlands. How are you being treated in the West as a woman of colour?
I have different experiences in the West. In America I have to deal with the history and culture there. In the Netherlands I’m not in tune with the history and race relations but for the most part I don’t feel bothered. When I’m in America I’m always into what is going on. There is always this feeling of underlining anxiety and the expectancy to be treated in a certain way. I did not experience this in the Netherlands. However I’m in this bubble of my masters program and hang out with my classmates. So far it’s been pretty ok. No problems.

How did Western culture influence you while growing up?
I grew up in South Africa that has also a different history. I think I became aware of my difference when I was told that we will move back to America. There is a writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who says that she had a moment when she realized that she was black. I had the same experience when I returned to America. I just realized that my identity wasn’t the standard and that I supposed to fit into a certain group. I was seen as African American although I did not necessarily identify as such. As I got older I began to realize that these are beauty standards. Growing up in South Africa I seen a lot of black women on TV and advertisements, but in America I saw white women being portrayed as desirable and beautiful. They gave another example of what’s expected from a woman or girl. It made me realize that what I’m looking at doesn’t mirror me, that I wasn’t able to mirror the beauty standards. I had to learn to accept myself the way I am because I wasn’t going to find validation in my environment. I mean in America as a whole, unless I found a community of people I could relate to. America is always selling this ideal of beauty that is unattainable. It took a toll on me being a dark girl and not being able to fit the mould.

How do you relate to the traditional ideal of femininity in South African culture?
I’m not sure that I know what the ideal of femininity is in South Africa. My sister lives there now and I visited a couple of years ago. I know that women shave their hair off in South Africa, because they consider it beautiful. I think that black women there have a different way of looking at themselves. I wouldn’t say that it’s completely not influences by Western culture or America, but the beauty standards are different and I think it has a lot to do with the culture. There’s a different dynamic because the majority of the population are black people. I think by identifying as South African, I accept who I am and don’t have to live up to a standard. I can be myself outside of unrealistic ideals.

What role does hair play in African culture?
Hair kind of represents the standard beauty ideal and your identity. Hair is a very important tool. I think your self esteem is locked up in it. Africans have this concept of good hair and bad hair. There are so many different textures of hair. How you present yourself with your hair says a lot. Hair is really a huge thing for an African woman, especially a black woman, because as you grow up you spend hours and hours learning about your hair and how to take care of it. This process has a lot to do with self love.

What is your personal relationship with your hair?
I grew up with my mom and sister. They are very different from me. Their hair type is a lot looser and they have lighter skin. I felt that I don’t look like that and didn’t like my hair. So I have a problem with accepting myself that constantly raises the question how am I going to go about it without having my self esteem tied up in it. For a while I had natural hair that comes with certain presumptions people have about the afro. Then I had periods when I straiten my hair because I did not have the patience to take care of it. I had so many different hairstyles. It is a constant journey of trying to find something that suits me and the statement I am trying to make. I feel that it carries a lot of significance to me in how I present myself.

Why did you decide to document your hair braiding ritual for display?
I made it for a class called testifying practices. We had to create an artwork about our truth and who we are. For me hair is always about identity and reframing the boxes we put ourselves in. I am proud of who I am and hair is a big part of my culture. Getting my hair done is a very personal way to say this is who I am. African women connect with each other through hair. Hair braiding is a very personal practice that takes hours. Normally we go to salons and sit there for hours and have conversations. It’s a very personal space, a journey to acceptance and understanding. It was really personal to show the hair braiding process because it has so much weight, meaning, and is so much more complicated than it appears to be. It also ties me back to women who look like me and identify with this practice.

How did showing this private ritual affect you?
At first I felt really vulnerable and didn’t want to show it. It looks like I’m just braiding my hair but it opens up this whole conversation about identity. As a black woman I feel more subjected to being told what is acceptable. I felt like people will not understand why this is so personal to me and that it relates to taking pride in my culture.

What was the reaction of the public to that video?
I showed it to my classmates and teachers. They liked the video and though that I just should let it run. It’s being spun up times four because otherwise it would last for seven hours. Some thought it was nothing special, some understood that it was really personal. But in general I felt like people didn’t know how to access it. There was no entry point for them to really connect to it.

What did you want to achieve by presenting your hair braiding ritual as an artwork?
I think there’s something really beautiful about it. There is a lot of history and culture wrapped up in it. For me hair braiding is an artistic skill. Not everybody can do it well. You learn it from older women, sisters or friends. It’s a really beautiful connecting process. Presenting hair braiding as an artwork opens it up for appreciation. I hate to create exclusive, esoteric art that no one can access. I want to present bodies and voices that don’t have a platform to do so. I want to show these things in a way that celebrates them. It’s about love, care and pride. Art makes things valuable.

That video shows a seven hour long sitting of braiding your hair. How do you experience this time consuming practice of self grooming?
It is a process of self care. It’s very loaded practice, especially for black woman who focus on black hair. It’s not time that’s wasted but an investment to battle micro aggressions. A lot of the time when I’m in public I am wondering when someone is going to say something offensive. It’s a lot easier to spend time taking care of yourself to look nice. It’s like putting a mask on.

You are trained as a painter and usually use other models. How did the choice to use your own body impact your work?
It felt vulnerable because it’s normally not something I do. I don’t even make self portraits. My work is always about others. Using my own body made it feel personal. In my work I often use veils. Speeding the video up was also a way of veiling it. I did not want people to focus on my idiosyncrasies. It’s really confronting to show myself like that and accept it.

Do you see yourself incorporating performance in your work in the future?
I have a group show coming up where I wanted to use hair again. I want to record myself braiding someone’s hair for twelve hours. It’s going to be silent as well, so it’s more about the action. I want to continue with this performance to see how it develops, and how my ideas about it develop.

Do you notice overlapping themes between your work and the work of other female artists?
I think especially in this upcoming group show, you can see this labour. We make a lot of statements about the connection to our work. This particular show is about gender. I think the overlapping theme with other female artists is the display of female body. Not objectifying the body but introducing new ways of looking and creating new stories.

Would you call yourself a feminist?
I don’t think I’m read enough to call myself a feminist. Feminists really live in it, they are very aware of what they are defending. I do aspire to be that kind of woman. To say that I’m a feminist at this point is not fair because I’m not that immersed into it. I do believe that I try to hold up feminist ideals in my life.

Why do you aspire to be a feminist?
I can see a lot of inequality and injustices in the World based on gender, race or sexuality. I see these injustices and I want to live in a World where nobody has to face that or feel inferior because of how they identify themselves. I would want anyone to feel they way I did when I didn’t accept myself. I want to make sure everyone feels worthy and deserving of life.

Is feminism useful for your artistic practice?
I think if you live it, it’s going to show up in your work.