Ultraviolet light transits through hair the way light moves through a fibre optic tube. If the shaft is straight, the light is conducted easily. But kink the shaft, or curl it, and it no longer works. The relationship between tube and light changes. In the case of hair, it stops being a conduit for UV light, and instead an adversary. An obstacle, an equal; something that no longer carries the light passively, but plays with it instead.
This play, between sunlight and hair, is the rhythm that scores the work of Rebecca Bair. A photographer by training, Bair photosensitises cotton sheets with cyanotype chemicals, exposing hair to sunlight and leaving prints on the sheets that evoke movement and play. The hair makes marks that are variously precise, ambiguous, and glyphic. They tease out a dance-notation of improvised choreography, as the artist allows for chance interactions between hair and light to occur. The cyanotype medium, recognisable for its blue colour, creates a sky against which hair becomes elemental: cloud, wind, and lightning.
When material is exposed onto the cyanotype medium, what results is a photo-negative: an outline, a photographic imprint of the shadows cast by that object. The hair that Bair exposes zigzags and glows, like filaments of plasma—the stuff that stars are made of. Hair transmutes into sunlight itself.
Bair has fabricated brushes using hair extensions, with which she applies the bold blue chemicals onto the cotton. Movement and play are suggested through gestural strokes, from which a recurring motif emerges. It at once resembles a stylised sun beaming rays of light; and a girl whose curly hair radiates in a glory around her head.
The motif is a self-portrait of the artist, but one that celebrates Black womanhood in its expansiveness. As a photographer, Bair has long explored representation of Black female identity without allowing the body to be shot or captured. Hair is her favoured subject in this endeavour. These prints—with their intimate renderings of natural hair, of hair extensions, of shea butter and care and styling—realise exciting possibilities.
Evolutionary biologists have speculated that the curl of Afro-textured hair gave early humankind an advantage. Its buoyancy kept the head cool; its structure prevented the harsh UV of equatorial light from transiting right to the scalp, thus protecting the human brain and allowing its development. An interplay of sunlight and hair underscores human history, back to the first mass migration out of the African continent. As for the second mass migration from Africa: the resemblance of cyanotype to indigo—the original slave crop, coveted for its “royal blue” dye—is not lost on Bair. Her cyanotype exposures celebrate Black joy and autonomy. Their invocation of air and sky is the very image of uplift.
Such caprice might be considered uncharacteristic of cyanotypes. Cyanotypes are often associated with blueprints, or object studies: measurable, scientific. Cyanotypes are concerned with accuracy. To make a cyanotype of Black-diasporic play, of womanhood and self-love, is to trace a lived sense of splendour. Accuracy is not the aim here, yet perhaps it occurs anyway. For these are works that are both seen and felt. They are buoyant; they are light.