‘I was really interested in hairy ladies. The deviance’

Artist Niamh McGuinne on combing through the rich and strange history of hair

Many centuries ago a young Portuguese girl was said to have been so determined to remain chaste, she prayed to be made ugly. God granted her a beard. The story of St Wilgefortis so piqued the interest of artist Niamh McGuinne that she began to make work about it, and to further explore the work of artists who have gotten to grips with hair.

"I was really interested in hairy ladies," says McGuinne on the eve of the opening of Bristle: Hair and Hegemony, the exhibition she has co-curated at Drogheda's Highlanes Gallery. "And in the idea of deviance that's associated with it."

Looking through the canon of art history and at contemporary making, McGuinne also investigated the medical reasons a woman might come to sport a beard. "I went to the Royal College of Surgeons, and found details about Anorexia mirabilis [which is self-starvation in the name of God]. When you don't understand why something happens, the temptation is to put it down to a miracle or something supernatural, and that whole distorted thinking is really interesting."

Look more closely at human hair, and distorted thinking becomes somewhat commonplace. How else do you explain the practice of waxing and the prurience that surrounds pubic hair? In an essay accompanying Bristle, Orla Fitzpatrick reminds us of Petra Collins, the artist who, in 2014, had her account deleted from Instagram for posting a photo in which her pubic hair was visible under her bikini pants.


"Unlike the 5,883,628 (this is how many images are tagged #bikini) bathing suit images on Instagram . . . mine depicted my own unaltered state – an unshaven bikini line," wrote Collins in a Huffington Post piece. "I'm used to the fact that images of unaltered women are seen as unacceptable," she added.

Health and hygiene are often used as a reason for waxing and shaving, although up until the 1980s a trawl through Playboy (if you must) showed public hair on most of its models. It's more likely to be connected to anxieties about sexual desire and adulthood. Why else would women try to return their bodies to a pre-pubescent state?

The legend goes that the 19th-century art critic John Ruskin was so cocooned in a world of classical statuary, that he was shocked by his wife Effie Gray's pubic hair on their wedding night, and the marriage was never consummated. It's impossible to know what actually happened (Effie went on to have a much happier marriage to the artist John Everett Millais), but hair is at the frontline of our personal battles with bodily discomfort, sexual anxiety, self loathing, and societal pressures to conform.

Beyond trimming and cutting, even those who may draw the line at surgery or extreme dieting and fitness programmes, pluck, shave, wax and dye. This isn’t confined to women, and it goes right back through history, fairytales, literature and mythology.

While Samson is seen to have lost his virility and strength when Delilah persuaded him to cut his hair, another Biblical figure, the queen of Sheba, is said to have had hairy legs. When King Solomon’s advisers reported this, he made a floor of glass. Believing it to be water, Sheba raised her skirts, revealing her legs and, yes, their hair.

Some writers have seen this as evidence of her being part genie or demon. What it does show is the power we vest in this natural growth from our bodies, and our cultural discomfort with it.

Ana Maria Pacheco's set of screen prints, Hairy Legs of the Queen of Sheba, is featured in Bristle; as is a Dante Gabriel Rossetti pen and ink drawing of one of the Pre-Raphaelite muses, Jane Burden. Another was Lizzie Siddal, who went on to marry Rosetti. It was an unhappy relationship and she later died from an overdose of laudanum. Grief stricken, Rosetti threw a manuscript of his poems into her coffin. Seven years later, he started to think it might be quite nice to publish the poems after all, and so had Siddal dug up again.

When they opened the coffin, so the story goes, Siddal’s glorious red hair had continued to grow. Hair does continue to grow for a very short while after death, and the shrinking of the skin makes it appear to have grown even more. This led alchemists to believe that the hair growth after death contained the “quick”, the essence of life.

Hairy stories like this are fascinating, and Bristle, while not styling itself (hair puns become inevitable with an exhibition like this) as either a socio-political polemic or encyclopaedic survey of hair in art, can't help but raise fascinating questions, and weave narratives through the works on show.

There's a lock of hair said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette; late Georgian miniatures featuring woven human hair, both love token and memento mori; etchings by Albrecht Durer, Rembrandt, William Hogarth, and James Barry; and contemporary works by artists including David Hockney, David Shrigley, Alice Maher and Helen Chadwick. The breadth of loans that Highlanes has managed to secure is thanks to the gallery's recent Heritage Council accreditation, says its director Aoife Ruane, and the exhibition is full of gems.

Despite the glorious Japanese wood block works by Hashiguchi Goyo, on loan from the Chester Beatty, it's difficult not to be distracted from those more personal questions about how society and culture shape our bodies. Helen Chadwick's Birth of Barbie shows a bright red, blonde-haired Barbie emerging from a lump of raw meat, shaped to look like a vulva. Barbie's bright hair, white teeth and blue eyes glow against all that bloody crimson, her broad smile and fixed stare full of Stepford Wife-menace.

This is shown alongside Abigail O'Brien's video, Natural Wax, in which detailed instructions and contra indications from a home waxing pack scroll across a screen, accompanied by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin's breathy, climactic, Je t'aime, moi non plus. The violent, and violating nature of our quest for sexual acceptability and cultural perfection is brilliantly underlined.

For a complete antithesis to Barbie's blonde locks, So Yoon Lym's The Dreamtime prints allude to the complex history of black hair. Showing braided patterns on anonymous heads, the artist hints at both the societal control exerted over black hair, taming the afro, while showing the remaining space for expression in the patterns of the braids.

Elsewhere, a large digital print by Kiran Riaz, East Meets West, looks like a massive mosaic. Made up of photographs of bearded men, Riaz demonstrates how cultural stereotyping comes in to play, from the venerable elderly, to the urban hipster, to Islamic terrorist: the beard is a fluid signifier.

Bharti Parma's Shag, a carpet made from human hair, is oddly repellent, in the same way that the hair on your head becomes vaguely disgusting when lying shorn on the salon floor. There are gentler works there too, in the shape of Kathy Prendergast's The End and the Beginning, a spool of hair made from the hair of three generations, intertwined: the artist, her mother and her son. Then there's Saidhbhín Gibson's Mettlesomeness and Stroke, a silver fork with its tines replaced by luxuriant hair. But, wait, the tines are still there, sharp prongs lurking, hidden beneath.

It’s fascinating to see, as McGuinne says, “all these people doing different things with the same thread. This idea of hairlessness – where you should and shouldn’t have hair; it seems a very feminist thing, but it affects men too. I’ve got three girls, they’re teenage now, and I’m thinking about how much easier it seemed in my day, to subtract yourself from being all the time aware of what other people’s opinion was. Someone could think you were weird, but it didn’t really matter.”

Should it matter now? Maybe it’s time for the hairy backlash to take root.

“Bristle: Hair and Hegemony” is curated by Roisin Kennedy, Niamh McGuinne and Aoife Ruane. Until September 23rd highlanes.ie

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture