This Artist Creates Hair Sculptures With Powerful Messages
Using her hair as her megaphone, artist, model, and activist Laetitia Ky speaks truth to power.
In Allure's Talent Show, we'll introduce you to on-the-rise makeup artists, hairstylists, and nail artists who are making the industry a more beautiful space. This time, we're focusing on Laetitia Ky, an artist, model, and activist who creates elaborate hair sculptures to transmit powerful messages. Ky recently published Love & Justice, a book that documents the evolution of her work, accompanied by personal essays. In an as-told-to interview with associate features director Dianna Mazzone, Ky shares her personal hair journey and the inspiration behind her advocacy.
I was born on the Ivory Coast, in the city of Abidjan. [West Africa is] still deeply impacted by colonization, even though we're independent now. Growing up, the dolls I had were all white and had straight hair. I would remove it and buy extensions at the markets and sew them in.
I first got my hair relaxed when I was five years old; it was the norm. When I went into middle school, I was forced to shave my head completely. In a lot of public schools here, it's believed that if girls let their hair grow, they will be too attractive and the boys will not focus. My high school was private, so I was allowed to let my hair grow — and I was back to relaxing it again.
After I got my high school degree, I went to school for business management. But three years in, I told my mom I couldn't continue.
Ky serves as artist, model, and photographer for her sculptural work. Courtesy of Laetitia Ky
I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, I just knew that I wanted to create. She told me to take a year off to think about it, that she would support me. That year, I spent a lot of time scrolling the internet and observed a lot of people making careers [online]. It was a very important year, because I realized I could also do that. I just didn't know what kind of content I would create.
[A few years earlier], I discovered American natural hair communities on YouTube when I was looking for ways to make my hair — which was extremely weak from relaxing — grow again. I was following a lot of accounts promoting the beauty of Black hair. Around the time when I was thinking about what content I could make, one of those accounts shared a photo album of women in West Africa in the precolonial era. I was completely blown away by their hairstyles. They were like sculptures: huge, abstract, geometrical. I felt [inspired] to do some experimentation. I made a long, braided extension, like a straight line on top of my head. I posted it and my friends and family were completely impressed. That's when I thought maybe this was something I could do.
To manipulate hair into shapes, Ky wraps hair extensions over wire. Courtesy of Laetitia Ky
I realized I could use wire to bend the hair. I was doing very simple shapes, like circles. But I tried to push the complexity every time. When I had an idea, I would do a quick sketch, create it on myself in front of a mirror, and then use my phone and a tripod to take a picture.
At the beginning, it was just for the aesthetic. I was doing a shape just because it was cool visually. Until one day, I did this photo story where I shaped my hair as a second pair of hands. And for the first time, my picture went completely viral. I woke up to thousands and thousands of followers. I received messages from Black women saying that seeing me use what [they'd been made to feel was] ugly to create art boosted their self-esteem. I even received a message from a woman who said that her child wanted to straighten her hair, but changed her mind when she saw my picture.
I realized that my hairstyles could really mean something. That's exactly when I decided to associate my personal beliefs with my art.
The first feminist sculpture I did [with hair] was to support #MeToo. It was of a man lifting a woman's skirt. I got a lot of messages from women sharing their personal stories. For a lot of them, I was the first person they were telling.
I did [another] where I shaped my hair as a woman's breasts. In some African countries, there's something we call "breast flattening": When a woman is a teenager, they use a spatula to pound her breast so it will disappear. They believe that if she grows breasts, she will attract boys. So a lot of young girls are ashamed of their breasts. In this post, I was saying that I was ashamed before, but now I'm proud. I grew up in a very patriarchal society. Now it's changing; it's evolving. But
growing up, rape was normal. Domestic violence was normal.
"It's our job as artists not to make what will please people, but to make what represents us."
It's our job as artists not to make what will please people, but to make what represents us. I think real creativity [happens] when we fully accept ourselves and we are not ashamed of anything. As soon as you own your uniqueness, your brain works differently and you're able to always add a twist to something that any other person never would. — As told to Dianna Mazzone
This story originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of Allure.
Article written by Dianna Mazzone for Allure. All photo taken from Allure.