South Africa: Braids - an Artful Language of Culture and Expression

analysis

Princess Ndlovu is more than just a hairdresser. With celebrity clients, she has taken braiding to new levels of possibility.

On Beyers Naudé Drive, five black hair salons are situated within walking distance of one another. It is one of the busier streets in Melville, Johannesburg. Most offer similar services: barbering for those who want to keep their hair and beards trimmed and fresh; and weaves, wigs, braids, cornrows, hair straightening options and professional nail services for everyone else. But at the salon with pink fluorescent walls and MetroFM blaring in the background, Princess Ndlovu's work stands out.

At Beltone Hair and Beauty Salon on the corner of 2nd Avenue, Ndlovu does the hair of sought-after clientele, which includes musician Sho Madjozi; cultural ambassador and social media influencer Kwena Baloyi, who has been deemed one of the best dressed people on the internet; and actress Lunathi Mampofu, among others.

At Beltone, there are full-length mirrors and shelves of mannequin heads adorned with wigs. Countertops are cluttered with hair paraphernalia, from combs and hair products to hairdryers and beads. These are the tools with which magic gets made.

Ndlovu's inspired work has become a meeting point for those with eclectic and individual style and a penchant for unique braiding. She creates custom-made colourful crowns and coiffures from synthetic hair fibre, revealing the historical inventiveness that defines braiding.

Braiding as art

The popularity of hair braiding is not a new trend. Braids have been a part of black culture for centuries. Indeed, they date back to 3 500 BCE. Various historians argue that braiding was not only used as a fashionable way to present hair, but it was also about identity. Your hairstyle could reveal which clan you belonged to, your marital status, social status, religion, age and much more. It was like a self-contained language.

Braiding was just one of the skills Ndlovu learned at the college she was trained at in Harare, Zimbabwe. She's been a hairdresser and stylist since 2006.

"At school they taught us the basics, how to do cornrows and singles, how to apply relaxer and blow dry hair. It was the very basics, everything else I taught myself," she said.

Ndlovu is part of a global network of hairstylists who treat black hair braiding as art. There are artists who use idioms of hair in their paintings. Creating shapes and forms through an intricate connections of plaits, designs, geometric patterns and lines, Zimbabwean artist and educator Nontsikelelo Mutiti creates her own form of magic.

"The braiding of black women's hair is no simple weekend outing. And as has been shown in more open, public discussions about black hair among black women, the process of going to the salon, choosing a style and applying the braids is also being recognised as a series of processes which are cultural, community-driven and the product of intergenerational knowledge and techniques," she told journalist Binwe Adebayo.

Change, circumstance and opportunity

Ndlovu moved to South Africa in 2008 to join her father, sister and extended family because of economic circumstances in Zimbabwe. Her first job in South Africa was at a popular salon in Hillbrow, where she did everything from cutting, braiding and relaxing to installing weaves. But after five months of not receiving a salary, she left.

When one door closes another always opens, and Ndlovu quickly learned of a salon in Northcliff looking for a stylist. "I went there that same day for an interview, and I was hired. I got two clients and that is where I built my clientele from. That is when I started enjoying my work because I was getting paid, and I was treated well," she said.

After three years, the salon folded. Ndlovu was informed of this on the morning of her last day. "I remember, it was a Tuesday, and I had three clients that day. I got there, and they were demolishing the salon. There was dust everywhere. ... [The owner] said she was closing the salon. I did my clients' hair in that chaos.

"One of my customers told me that I could rent a chair at a salon in Melville, so the next day I went and met with Papa William who owns the salon, and I have been there ever since. At least 60% of my clients from Northcliff moved with me."

For Ndlovu, it was a move that signified independence. Renting her own salon furniture is liberating because she is no longer answerable to a boss. She now can run her business as she sees fit. "Working for myself is easier because I manage my finances. I am in control," she explains.

Taking proper care of hair

Ndlovu's move to Melville coincided with the emergence of the international fashion of keeping black hair natural by not using chemicals or heat, in the form of blow drying and hot irons. Many of her clients are interested in braiding as a way to manage and maintain their hair in good health.

In 2019, Ndlovu says braiding trends are less about cultural nuance and more about protecting natural hair. She offers many hair services, but is celebrated for her skill in braiding and plaiting, which she has mastered over time due to the demand from her clients.

"Most of my clients are creative so they come to me with pictures or ideas, and we work from there. Others are not sure, so I look at the shape of their face and then go to the internet for ideas. Pintrest, Instagram and YouTube have really helped me to understand trends and styles."

And it's never only a hairstyle. United States visual artist Shani Crowe, famously created a braided Swarovski crystal bead-embellished halo for Solange Knowles's Saturday Night Live performance in 2016. Crowe's braids "broke the internet" at the time, with their use of beads, haloes and intricate techniques applied to conventional cornrows. While Ndlovu can't claim to having broken the internet with her work yet, important collaborations have taken her profile to a new level.

Working with the hair of stars

By 2017, just 11 years into her career, Ndlovu found her own cultural defining moment in a collaboration with a musician. South African rapper Sho Madjozi discovered Ndlovu after a frustrating search for a stylist who could execute her vision.

"I had just got back from Senegal, so I had been exposed to a lot of creativity in the braiding and cornrow space," said Madjozi. "What I found is that most stylists in South Africa were bad at listening to what I wanted. But ... Princess ... listens and is able to come up with ways to meet my vision and make it work."

Their recent collaboration, featured on the cover of Cosmopolitan South Africa's July issue, reveals a creative synergy in parallel braids accented with multiple beads. The work that Ndlovu and Madjozi create together often features brilliant colours and accessories such as rings and cowrie shells.

Madjozi, who is known for the unique and colourful cornrows adorning her scalp, says that besides being a great stylist, Ndlovu understands how to handle natural hair. "Most of the time, hair stylists don't know how to manage natural hair and ... braid properly. They pull at your hairline, which is what causes damaged hairlines, but not Princess. She is gentle, and she knows how to handle my hair."

Ndlovu says Madjozi introduced her to Instagram and encouraged her to post photographs of the styles she had created on clients. It was a turning point for her: now she habitually tags her most popular clients in Instagram posts, which ramp up her followers.

Madjozi also introduced actress Lunathi Mampofu to Ndlovu. "She is amazing. I like to chop and change my hair; I am not one for convention. She understands my sense of style. I show her pictures and give her direction and together we create something new together," said Mampofu.

Mutiti comments on the status that hair has in Africa, pointing out that many hairdressers are breadwinners. "We create economies that have complex layers ... just like coding, braiding has to be learned, practiced, perfected. Braiders are skilled and valuable workers."

For Ndlovu, nothing is impossible or off limits when it comes to creating hairstyles that stand out for her clients. As her work gains further acclaim, she raises awareness for the value that formal and informal hair salons bring to South African society: it's a cornerstone of our identity.

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