The Fitzwilliam is the University of Cambridge's museum of art and antiquities, with thirty-four galleries devoted to Classical, Western, and Oriental art. It is not a place visitors expect to find rooms filled with African combs. During the summer of 2013, however, its Mellon and Octagon galleries were devoted to “Origins of the Afro Comb: 6,000 Years of Culture, Politics and Identity.” Curated by Senior Assistant Keeper of Antiquities Sally-Ann Ashton, it was the Fitzwilliam's major exhibition for 2013 and was publicized by banners throughout the city (Fig. 1). Even the most uninterested visitor to Cambridge could not to fail to notice the exhibition was on; subliminally, at least, the message that “Afro combs” are worthy of attention—aesthetic and/or scholarly—must have got through to at least some tourists, natives, students, and dons.
The Mellon gallery was the main room, filled with combs from all parts of Africa (Fig. 2)—along with figures, masks, and photographs illustrating both the use of combs and African hairstyles in general. Many of the objects would have been familiar to readers of this journal; indeed, many similar objects were shown in “Hair in African Art and Culture” at the Museum for African Art in New York in 2000 (Sieber and Herreman 2000) and in “Doing Hair: Art and Hair in Africa” at the Wits Art Museum in 2014 (De Becker and Nettleton 2014). What distinguished “Origins of the Afro Comb” was its location, its focus on combs, and its narrative/historical drive—beginning with ancient Egypt and Sudan.
When I was asked to review “Origins of the Afro Comb” I hastily assumed it would be another frustrating exhibition reducing the myriad cultural traditions of the African continent to pale imitations of ancient Egyptian examples—no doubt giving prominence to an anonymous private collection, as was the case with a smaller exhibition “Triumph, Protection and Dreams: East African Headrests in Context” held at the Fitzwilliam in 2011–2012 (Massing and Ashton 2011). Pleasingly, however, I found there was far more to enjoy and to praise in “Origins of the African Comb” than to criticize. There were very few items from private collections and no more than one or two of these were anonymous. Instead, the exhibition drew on the more-or-less well-provenanced collections of the University's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the British Museum, and the Petrie Museum at University College London, as well as those of the Fitzwilliam itself. Moreover, the sub-Saharan combs on display were not presented as pale echoes of those from ancient Egypt and Sudan; rather they were individually and appropriately labeled and contextualized. There were places where greater involvement of sub-Saharan specialists might have resulted in better information, but these were few and far between and—in the wider context—insignificant.
Amidst hundreds of combs and related objects from across Africa, however, the exhibition's key objects were a 5,500-year-old bone comb, excavated from grave G78 in the southern cemetery at Abydos by archaeologist W.M. Flinders Petrie in 1898/1899, and a plastic Black Fist comb, one of thousands mass produced since the patent was first issued in the US in 1972 (Fig. 3)—hence “origins” and “Afro comb.” To fully appreciate the significance of these two objects, however, one needs to look beyond the exhibition itself. As explained by the Fitzwilliam's director Tim Knox in his “Foreword” to the catalogue, the bone comb had been used by Ashton in educational work with prisoners, in which she used her knowledge of ancient Egypt to deepen their interest in African culture. One of the project's key aims was “to encourage ownership of cultural heritage, in particular for black and North African prisoners, who have a direct link with ancient Egypt through their own cultural roots.” Some of the black prisoners with whom Ashton worked remarked on the similarities between the ancient Egyptian comb and those they used at home. Knox writes: “It was another tangible link between the rich cultural heritage of the Nile valley all those millennia ago, and present-day Africa and the African Diaspora to America, Europe, and Britain” (Knox 2013:7).
That some people today “see” a link, however, does not mean that any such connection can be traced historically or art-historically. Indeed, I continue to be bothered by the suggestion that there is a single story to be told—of “origins” and “6,000 years of history”—as if each African comb, of whatever form and origin, is part of one story that has its origins in ancient Egypt and its modern apotheosis in the “Afro comb.” In the exhibition itself this single story of “origins” was undermined by the telling of a number of other stories, particularly those relating to the development of the Afro comb itself, with its origins in the popularity of Afro hairstyles in the US in the 1960s and the development of the Black Power comb.
The exhibition cannot be faulted for its treatment of the individual objects within it; but its ostensible theme and supposed organizing principle should be challenged. I say “ostensible” and “supposed” because it seems to me that the underlying concept actually had less to do with “origins” and “history” and far more to do with “blackness.” What held the exhibition together was not a spurious historical link between the objects displayed, but the fact that they were all made and used by black people—in ancient Egypt and Sudan, in “modern” Africa, and in the US. As a result, unsurprisingly, the exhibition had great significance, resonance, and meaning for its black visitors, of which there were many on the day I was there. From such a perspective, the scholarly—for which, read “pedantic”—concerns of a middle-aged, middle-class, white guy with precious little hair matter little, if at all. I can have my say here, explicating my concerns about the art-historical inappropriateness of presenting a wide range of African combs as somehow being the product of some sort of evolutionary process that began in ancient Egypt and reached its apotheosis in New York in the 1970s. That is clearly wrong in all sorts of ways. Rather there are hundreds and thousands of histories, making up a complex diversity that must be addressed if one does not want to mislead and/or reinforce ideas about “the country of Africa.”
Arguably, however, such concerns are irrelevant in this case. Using a single story as a hook, “Origins of the Afro-Comb” caught and held the imagination of its many and diverse visitors. Ostensibly about combs, it was, as its subtitle rightly suggested, actually about “culture, politics, and identity.” Its legacy should be the encouragement it gives curators of African collections in the UK to rethink their responsibilities and do things differently.
“Origins of the Afro Comb” was actually a joint exhibition with the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which hosted, from July 2 to September 28, three installations by artist Michael McMillan. At the Fitzwilliam there was also a display of comb-inspired relief prints by Ghanaian artist Atta Kwami. There were also talks, drop-in and handling sessions, film-showings, lectures and a conference, an online audio slideshow “The Afro Comb and the Politics of Hair” hosted by the BBC (www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-23995659), and an interactive website (www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/gallery/afrocombs).
The catalogue, Origins of the Afro Comb: 6,000 Years of Culture, Politics and Identity, edited by Sally-Ann Ashton (Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum, 2013; 62 pages, 80+ black-and-white and color images; £7.99 softcover), is eclectic, with only some of the range of short essays relating directly to the exhibition. Many readers of African Arts might prefer the more scholarly monograph, 6,000 Years of African Combs, by Sally-Ann Ashton (Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum, 2013; 116 pages, 110+ black-and-white and color images; £17.99 softcover).