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The Origins of the Afro Comb

THE 6,000-year history of the afro comb, its extraordinary impact on cultures worldwide, and community stories relating to hair today are being explored in an insightful exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in Cambridge.

In honour of Black History Month, the exhibition – Origins of the Afro Comb – follows the evolution of the comb from pre-dynastic Egypt to modern-day, tracing the similarities in form and the remarkable diversity of designs found across Africa and the African Diaspora. The exhibition is part of a legacy project to record how the comb is used today, with visitors being encouraged to contribute their personal stories and hairstyles both to the exhibition and to the archives for future generations.

Here, Lucy Theobald, marketing and press coordinator at the Fitzwilliam Museum talks to Life & Style about the project.

How did the inspiration for the exhibition Origins of the Afro Comb come about?
The inspiration for the exhibition lies behind the community work of Sally-Ann Ashton, who is the Fitzwilliam Museum’s curator of antiquities from ancient Egypt and Sudan. Going out to work with a variety of community groups, Sally-Ann found that one of the objects that resonated the most with all sorts of people from all backgrounds was an ancient Egyptian afro comb decorated with a bull’s horn, which is featured at the beginning of the exhibition. People found a real similarity with the combs they used today, a good example being the iconic black fist comb.

Where and how did you source the combs, pictures and artefacts?
The two main sources of the combs are the Fitzwilliam Museum’s own collection and from the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, who supplied combs, sculptures and anthropological photographs. Another important lender was the British Museum, who amongst combs and sculptures also supplied the beautiful painted barber shop signs in the exhibition. Other lenders included the Petrie Museum and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria. We also received personal combs and commissioned modern combs from Africa from other individual contributors, and a newly commissioned series of prints from artist Atta Kwami.

How has the evolution of the Afro comb changed over the years?
The exciting aspect of the exhibition is showing how the form of the comb has predominantly stayed the same since antiquity. The combs have changed in style and decoration depending on movements of people. As quoted from Sally-Ann’s catalogue essay on the subject: With mass settlement from outside cultures came changes in the design of hair combs in Egypt. The most obvious difference was that the gaps between the teeth, which are often narrower than on the earlier combs and are also shorter, signifying a change in hair type and/or length.
Another significant difference during the later periods of Egyptian history is that the decoration on the handles no longer shows the deities of earlier civilisations. In regards of the change in religion, some human and animal figures continue to be featured on combs following the adoption of Christianity, but during the Islamic period most hair combs were decorated with geometric or floral designs; some occasionally had writing on them.

How do Afro combs differ from different countries in Africa and Europe?
Afro combs come in all sorts of different forms and sizes, depending on their indigenous country. The main differences between Afro combs and European combs are that Afro combs’ teeth are normally wider, they are often used for decoration in the hair as well as a functioning tool, and many example include a pick at one end.
Two examples can be taken from across Africa, including ones from Malawi (the Yao cultural group), which are short and wide and decorated with imported Italian glass beads, or the combs originating from Cameroon, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are made of the midribs of palm leaf bound together with palm leaf fibres creating a decorative fan-like pattern.

What is the aim of the exhibition?
There are all sorts of different themes in the exhibition that are important: the beauty of the combs themselves and that the people who made them are artists in their own right, the importance of the comb in maintaining cultural identity throughout the African Diaspora. At the end of the exhibition there is a focus on the comb from the colonial period onwards, and the role that personal styling and objects to maintain cultural identity had to play in helping people of African descent carry on resisting on a daily basis to slavery and beyond - continuing fight for equality as shown in the Black Power Movement and the Black Power fist comb.
The afro comb project is still ongoing and the aim is to get people thinking about their hair combs today. The museums are looking for people’s contributions on how they style their hair today so we can create an archive for future generations, and record the present history of this important cultural artefact.

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