The exhibit Beautifully Wrapped: the Fashion Tradition and Culture of Head Wrapping is on display at the Black Arts and Cultural Center until the end of this month. The exhibit has pictures of women from all over the world wearing head wraps.
During the November Kalamazoo art hop, curator Zarinah El-Amin Naeem did head wrapping demonstrations. She was wearing a head wrap called a gele.
“It’s a purple and gold, more Nigerian style head wrap. Which means it’s kind of tall," says Naeem. "It’s about a foot and a half maybe—yeah, a foot and a half. So I look like I’m 6’5”, but I’m really only 5’4.””
Naeem says head wrapping is a global tradition.
“Many people when they think of head wrapping they immediately think of West Africa or African countries. However, you look at head wrapping and it’s in several places around the world. It’s in Slovakia. It’s in Norway. And many of the traditional dress of the place, head wrapping is included in some type of way," she says. "So this exhibit pays homage to that and shows that it’s global.”
To do large, more structured head wraps like the gele, Naeem says it takes a special type of fabric.
“So for tall tall wraps, you’re going to use that damask—that is that type of paper type of fabric that I spoke about, your aso oke’s from Nigeria, your wax cloths, something with a little more stiffness. And if you’re just looking for a draping style, you know you can go with any light cotton or polyester. Really anything that’s light will work,” says Naeem.
Different cultures practice headwrapping for different reasons.
“In some countries you can look and tell the status, or whether a person is married or unmarried, whether they’re in mourning—all by how they tie their scarves," Naeem says. "Some scarves for some people are just functional, you know, they live in a place where they don’t want to have the sun beating down on them. And so for them, having the protection is that reason. For other people, it’s more of a spiritual act. So people feel like your head is the closest thing to the heavens. That’s the closest, highest part of your being, right? And so you cover your head to reverence that part of yourself and you’re getting closer to your creator. You are also blocking out a lot of negativity and negative messages that are being sent towards you.”
As a Muslim, Naeem says she also wraps her head to show modesty and respect for her creator. She says when she started covering her hair in college, people saw her in a different light.
“But it was like an immediate change in the reactions of people to me and how they treated me. And so wearing your hair you’re treated with respect, you’re treated in awe many times," she says. "And it doesn’t matter whether you have a little bun to the back or you have a tall, crown gele like I have on right now that’s two feet up in the air. It doesn’t matter. The fact that you’re covering your hair, there’s something special about that.”
The Beautifully Wrapped exhibit isn’t just about cultural awareness, Naeem also sells calendars of the photographs to raise money for a non-profit called 10,000 Girls. 10,000 Girls works to educate girls in Senegal who often stop going to school to work in the home. The non-profit also teaches older girls a trade so that they can become self-sufficient.