In Chris Rock's documentary "Good Hair," Maya Angelou says, "Hair is a woman's glory." The Bible has similar statements: "If a woman's hair is abundant, it is a glory to her" (Corinthians 11:15), and, "Gray hair is a crown of glory" (Proverbs 16:31).
Bottom line: Hair always has been important. Similarly to clothing, hair can signify status, heritage and history, and hairstyles represent expression of personal identity.
"J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere: Sartorial Moments and the Nearness of Yesterday" — on view through Sept. 29 at the Museum of the African Diaspora — is a striking exhibit that looks at hair and fashion in post-colonial Africa, from the mid-20th century up to the present day.
Organized by Olabisa Silva, director of the Contemporary Centre for Art, Lagos, and Oyinda Fayeke, an independent curator, "Sartorial Moments" is the first time Ojeikere's work has been displayed on the West Coast.
Born in Nigeria in 1930, Ojeikere is a studio photographer who has been documenting African fashion and hairstyles, both contemporary and traditional, since the mid-1950s. Concerned by an ever-increasing Western influence on Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, Ojeikere captured men and women in traditional dress and early adopters of Western fashions.
Six large, silver gelatin prints of women with elaborate hairstyles, from braids and twists to knots and ties, exemplify Angelou's "glory" sentiment. The styles, whether sculpted closely to the scalp or in spiky, antennaelike loops or caged towers, are the icing on the cake of personhood: a crown, a source of pride and a personal statement.
A stunning row of portraits pictures women with head ties: elaborate, beautifully folded, tucked and wound fabric hair wraps. Some have demure, Vermeer-like head turns and others a candid humor, but all are regal. A vertiginous head tie turns a woman's profile into the shade of Nefertiti.
About 30 smaller images, largely dating from the 1950s into the 1970s, are an assortment of traditional and modern dress; some have both.
Two men in shades in 1970 are too cool for school, while many of the women are textbook examples of the pinup femininity spearheaded by Dior's "New Look," a style recently revived by "Mad Men."
Tradition and trend cross over in several images, including one from 1964 with four women in head ties and traditional Nigerian dresses, all holding patent-leather handbags that look identical (but aren't quite) that today are highly coveted by fashionistas.
The show is a delight not only for those interested in vintage fashion and the history of traditional costume, but also for Ojeikere's keen and fastidious eye. His images are as noteworthy for their content as for their intrinsic beauty, humor and joy.IF YOU GO
J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere: Sartorial Moments and the Nearness of Yesterday
Where: Museum of African Diaspora, 685 Mission St., S.F.
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept.29
Admission: $5 to $10
Contact: (415) 358-7200, www.moadsf.org