Design & Style


Sabina McKenna on the curly question of hair and identity.

22 January 2021

The writer and curator’s latest project ‘HAIR’ looks at the connection between hair and cultural identity for women of colour.

Design & Style


Sabina McKenna on the curly question of hair and identity.

22 January 2021

The writer and curator’s latest project ‘HAIR’ looks at the connection between hair and cultural identity for women of colour.

Sabina McKenna stands in front of a brick wall with her hands held in front of her

As a young woman of colour, writer and curator Sabina McKenna has spent most of her career exploring identity. Image: Supplied.

As a young Australian woman of colour, writer and curator Sabina McKenna has spent most of her career exploring identity. Her first curatorial series ‘Where Are You From?’ featured portraits and essays by Australian people of colour reflecting on their cultural identities. It began as a small project for Sabina but quickly garnered significant attention and became a runaway success, reaching and connecting with thousands of people.

In 2020, Sabina followed ‘Where Are You From?’ with ‘HAIR’, a new ‘zine and exhibition that explored the experience of living with textured, curly or coiled hair for women of colour in particular. With photos and stories written by the subjects, the aim was to shine a light on the prejudice that surrounds textured hair and, more broadly, the impact of European beauty standards on people of colour.

A portrait of a young woman of colour with natural hair from Sabina McKenna’s ‘HAIR’ series

‘HAIR’ features photos and stories written by the subjects that shed light on the prejudice that surrounds textured hair and what that’s like to grapple with day-to-day. Image: Supplied.

Like all of Sabina’s projects, HAIR is innately personal. After many rollercoaster years on her own journey towards accepting and loving her hair, she realised that few people understood how challenging the experience could be. She also knew there would be other Australian women of colour with similar stories to share.

Here, Sabina talks about the project and her plans to expand it further with a live event series and hair salon.

How has your own personal journey informed HAIR?

Hair has always been a big theme in my life, and always had a huge impact on the way I perceived myself. From my earliest years I had done anything and everything to conceal and manipulate my natural hair into something that it isn’t; I used relaxers, hair dye, hot irons, extensions, and every product under the sun. It was all very time consuming and really impacted my mental health and self-esteem. It felt like with my natural hair, I would never be considered beautiful or taken seriously.

Of course, aside from my own internalised prejudice there was the external response to my hair. So, I can now acknowledge that my past behaviour and feelings about my hair were actually a survival response. With people touching, commenting on and comparing my hair to things like animal fur or changing their behaviour toward me when they saw it naturally, especially in a professional setting, I had learned to make my blackness more palatable by manipulating my hair.

These are all very big things that have a huge impact on people's lives — it literally changes the way you live, and yet most people think of hair or a hair style as such an inconsequential thing.

What did you find when you started connecting with people to include in the ‘zine? Did they each have experiences similar to you?

Yes, all of the people I spoke to shared similar experiences as expected. I was quite surprised to find that even the women who have looser curl patterns — which is considered more favourable by conventional standards — still shared experiences as shocking and emotional as the women with tighter curls. Of course, lighter skin and looser curls still carry a certain level of privilege compared to darker features and tighter curls, but it really made me think that it really doesn’t take much for you to be considered ‘other’.

A portrait of a young woman of colour with short, natural hair from Sabina McKenna’s ‘HAIR’ series

After many rollercoaster years on her own journey towards accepting and loving her hair, Sabina realised that there were other Australian women of colour who would have similar stories to tell. Image: Supplied.

Why do you think hair is such an important identity signifier for people of colour?

I think it is more that it is inherently part of our identities, because culturally and societally it is a defining feature for many of us. Because of that we are deeply connected to our hair and the connotations it can carry.

The methods and practices we use to take care of and style our hair are sacred and have deep cultural significance. It's very difficult for someone to understand that if they are not a black person or person of colour with textured hair. When I wear those styles, I also have to consider whether or not I am prepared for people commenting and touching because it is inevitably going to happen. Which is why it can be harmful when braids, knots and cornrows are worn by people who have no intrinsic connection to them.

What’s next for HAIR? We hear that you’re launching a hair salon and event space?

[In 2021], I will be sharing more hair stories on the website and Instagram. That wasn’t the plan originally but the response to the exhibition was so profound that I feel there is a lot more to be shared on the topic.

In March, we’re launching a salon/event space with MPavilion, which is going to be so exciting too! The program is very exciting — the final line up is still in the works, but it feels very special to be able to curate a series of events led entirely by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People Of Colour) speakers! And the salon will be opening on March 1 and will be fully operational, so people will be able to come and get their hair styled in between events.

By Mitch Parker