Artblog Celebrating 20 Years!   Support Us Today!

A new exhibition captures the beautiful intimacy of Black hair rituals on canvas

Having viewed the exhibition prior to the current citywide lockdown, Kinaya Hassane shares the experience of witnessing Patricia Renee' Thomas's solo gallery show, "Grapejuice," at Kapp Kapp Gallery. Though presently closed, the hours for Thomas's show will be extended once the lockdown is lifted.

Painting of a black woman in a bra and underwear laying in bed.
The takedown, Patricia Renee’ Thomas, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Kapp Kapp. Photography Chad States.

At a time when the Kardashian-Jenner family and other white public figures continue to popularize and profit off of various aspects of Black beauty, Patricia Renee’ Thomas’s exhibit, Grapejuice, at Kapp Kapp Gallery is a refreshing reminder of the intimate scenes that are deeply familiar to many Black women. Though it’s been normalized for white people to sport cornrows, so-called “boxer braids,” and foundation that’s several shades too dark, few people can relate to the very specific sights, smells, tastes, and feelings associated with the everyday experience of being a Black woman. Through her lively mixed-media paintings, Thomas works to reclaim these aesthetics and experiences which have been appropriated and commodified in mainstream white culture.

The title of the exhibition, Grapejuice, is a reference to Thomas’s childhood experience of drinking the beverage during trips to the hair salon. Thomas’s works are filled with similar sorts of signposting. The works in the first room of the gallery depict various styles of Kanekalon hair while “Mousse and Rollers” features the abstracted yet highly recognizable branding of a container of Cantu hair product. In addition to its more material references to braiding, Thomas also alludes to the more corporeal aspects of getting one’s hair done. For example, those who experienced the hours (if not days) long process of hair braiding can relate to the patience and stillness of the young subject in “2 hour braids.”

Painting of a black woman with braids, text that says "2 hours"
2 hour braids, Patricia Renee’ Thomas, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Kapp Kapp. Photography Chad States.

“The Takedown” portrays yet another familiar scene as the subject appears to pause during the laborious process of undoing her braids while lying in bed. Standing in front of the painting, I could immediately recall the sense of relief that came with putting my arms down after long stretches of unbraiding my hair. Thomas’s evocation of such personal and oftentimes private experiences augments her larger project of reclamation by making it clear that having one’s hair braided is not merely a fashion statement. It is instead a ritual so ingrained in Black women’s lives that we don’t often realize it until someone like Thomas undertakes the work to excavate these shared experiences and memories.

Thomas’s adept usage of signs and symbols is bolstered by her unique and painterly style which place her both in conversation with and in opposition to other Black artists working in the same medium. Her dark-skinned subjects call to mind those of Kerry James Marshall and like Marshall, her work serves to elevate them. However, unlike Marshall and other artists of his ilk, Thomas does not paint with the primary intent of responding to degradation of the Black figure in the canon of Western art. Her work does not attempt to litigate her subjects’ humanity for the sake of white audiences. Thomas instead uses painting as a means of cementing the braiding and styling of Black hair as high an art form as the medium of painting itself. So however hard white celebrities and influencers may try to dilute, misrepresent, and peddle Black beauty traditions, Thomas’s art and broader practice serves as a reminder of these traditions’ deep-rooted sanctity.

Patricia Renee’ Thomas: Grapejuice” March 6- April 11, 2020 at Kapp Kapp, 333 South 13th St, Philadelphia, 19107

NOTICE: The show is temporarily closed but will be extended upon the gallery’s reopening