Caro Meets Spoken Word Interview Theatre Interview

Selina Thompson: Dark and Lovely

By | Published on Thursday 8 October 2015

Leeds based artist and performer Selina Thompson is known for her playful and interactive works, which focus on the politics of identity, and how they define bodies, lives and environments. Much of her recent output has revolved around food, the body and dieting, but her latest show, ‘Dark and Lovely’, is all about hair.

Dark and Lovely

It sounds fascinating, revealing and informative, and the moment I heard about it, I wanted to know more. I put some questions to Selina, about the content and aims of the piece.

CM: Tell us about the show. What’s it all about and what happens in it?
ST: The show is called ‘Dark and Lovely’, and its a performance about black women’s hair – about the artistry, the politics, the long long weekends sat at my mother’s/aunties’/hairdresser’s/best friends’ feet getting it done, about the deep conditions, bad weaves, banging braids, and failed twist outs. It’s about all the things it means, and all the things it doesn’t mean, and why people talk about hair in terms of cultural appropriation. I share stories from the six months I spent resident with hairdressers and retailers in Leeds, someone does my hair live, we drink rum, we explore the tumbleweave, and we meet the voices inside my head…

CM: What exactly is ‘The Tumbleweave’?
ST: The tumbleweave is a giant ball of hair, decked out to look like a cross between my Nan’s house and Junglepussy’s instagram. It was built in collaboration with our excellent carpenter Tim Darwin, and award winning designer Rachel Good. It can sing, it is armoured, and is made out of about £1000 worth of Kanekalon hair.

CM: The show is described as interactive; in what way is the audience involved in the action?
ST: One lucky person will be doing my hair, and we’ll be making a natural hair product too – the tumbleweave is a hugely tactile object – designed to be touched, scraped out of the way and entered into. So it’s not interactivity to be scared of, and I won’t be making you run around. It’s much more about us all being together.

CM: What are the aims of the show? To enlighten? Inform? Celebrate?
ST: Hmm. To explore, to challenge… to celebrate, and to reminisce, to problematise, and to remind.

Even though its a fun, and loving show – and I hope a generous and open one – it came from me wanting to connect two bits of my life that felt very separate: my life as an artist in Leeds 2013/2014 and my heritage, and my upbringing; and also wanting to look at why my partner’s daughter had the same hang ups about her hair that I had, that my mum had, that her mum had. At what point are those beauty standards passed on, if a 4 year old already knows about them? And who is it that really passes them forwards?

CM: What made you decide you wanted to focus on this particular topic?
ST: I was commissioned to make a piece of work in Chapeltown in Leeds – and it felt really important to me to make something that had a sincere relationship with the city, that came from a real place. Chapeltown was where I got my hair products – and the good, good food that reminded me of home. I’d just done loads of work about food, and I was a bit sick of getting sticky and messy, so hair it was! Also, Leeds is the third city I’ve lived in, and I’m interested in the moment when I move to a city and go “it’s not home until I know where to get Shea Butter, where to get Plantain, where to get Gungo Peas”. For me, there’s something really important in that, which I’m still trying to get to the heart of.

CM: Do you think a show like this can make a difference to the way people think; perhaps open their eyes to the othering of black women in the context of beauty culture? Do you feel as though things are changing at all in this regard?
ST: Hmmm. I would hope so. It – how can I put this – it all depends on where people are at. So maybe people will come to this show, starting from point zero, and it will expose them to lots of things they didn’t already know, and that’s important and valid, and hopefully it can set them off on a journey top researching more: there are so many brilliant resources out there to take people through this. But I’m also really interested in people who instinctively know about this othering, because they live it, and how this show can stand in solidarity with them…? I hope that the show can remind people of the context from which this othering comes, because I think that’s something we all need reminding of regularly: a historical context in which black people were seen as animals, in which our hair was seen as wool, how those remnants of chattel slavery and colonialism are the ones that are really difficult to shift. If you forget that context, it can be difficult to see why any of this matters – to see how beauty standards connect to global anti blackness and white supremacy – but all of these things join up and connect to one another.

I’m not sure if things are changing – but I think that historically, black women have always been able to carve out spaces to celebrate their beauty, artistry, creativity and style – and that this remains, that the internet helps to make these spaces open to all, and easier to find. Discovering the natural hair movement online has been hugely strengthening and healing for me.

CM: Will you be taking this show elsewhere, after the run at Ovalhouse?
ST: Yes! It will go to Northern Stage in Newcastle, Theatre in the Mill in Bradford, The REP in Birmingham and The Crucible in Sheffield. Dates can all be found on my website.

CM: What’s next for you? Anything new on the way?
ST: My installation ‘Race Cards’ – which you can catch at Fierce Festival – is also headed out on a little tour, and new Mayfest commission ‘Salt’, which is about an epic journey across three continents (by boat), is currently in development too! It’s a busy time coming up, but lush.

‘Dark and Lovely’ is on at Ovalhouse from 8-17 Oct. See this page here for more info and to book tickets.

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