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Philadelphia Stories of Beau- ty and Adorn- ment at the Folklore Project

By Haywood Brewster Staff Reporter


he Philadelphia Folklore Project has announced “The Will

To Adorn: Philadelphia Sto- ries,” a program devoted to exploring how people use adornment ” hair, dress, style, self-fashioning” as means of self expression and community affi rma- tion. The free event takes place at PFP, 735 S. 50th Street, on March 2, 2012, from 6 PM - 9 PM. The evening will include sto- rytelling from members of Keepers of the Culture (KOTC), Philadelphia’s Afrocentric storytelling group, story-sharing from attendees, and a screen- ing of the award-win- ning documentary “Hair Stories,” (1998) by West Philadelphia fi lmmaker, master braider and hair sculptor, Yvette Smalls. “Hair Stories” chronicles historical and cultural is- sues of beauty in the Afri- can American community, and features a series of candid interviews with Sonia Sanchez, Erykah Badu, Joe Lewis and oth- ers. West Philadelphia born and raised, Yvette Smalls is widely acknowl- edged for her role as a vanguard braider, activist and teacher in African American hair care and beauty.

Smalls says, “Hair is my artistic medium and be- came my mission.” She began braiding, dressing and sculpting African American women’s hair in the late 1970, to put herself through school. She was part of a move- ment of African American women rejecting defi ni- tions of “bad” and “good” hair based on European standards, and reclaim- ing African traditions of beauty. Her mother al- ways told her, “Beauty is as beauty does,” and the

saying inoculated Smalls against some of the nega- tive self-image she saw in others (from ages nine to ninety, she says) and set her on a journey of self- discovery. She went on to school herself in intricate and varied hair braiding, wrapping, coiling, and weaving traditions used in her own extended fam- ily across the American South, and across the Afri- can Diaspora, from Egypt to South Africa, Senegal to Kenya as an important form of creative expres- sion representing both the individuality and social status or role of the wear- er. In her own work, she draws on a wide range of styles and techniques, ap- proaching each person’s hair as the ultimate wear- able art.

In 1998, Smalls complet- ed the documentary “Hair Stories,” which has been broadcast and screened in numerous fi lm festivals around the world. Smalls has appeared at hundreds of schools and commu- nity events annually. A former board member of PFP, she was featured in PFP’s “Folk Arts of Social Change” exhibition in 1999, and an exhibition on women and folk arts (“All That We Do”) in 2007. (Both exhibitions can be seen on PFP’s website: Keepers of the Culture (KOTC), Philadelphia’s Afrocentric storytelling group, aims to perpetuate the African and African American oral tradition. They are inspired by traditional African sto- rytellers, griots, whose role as historians of the community helped people maintain a strong, posi- tive sense of self, and a clear understanding of the values of the community and the individual’s role in the community. KOTC meets monthly at PFP.

Yvette Smalls is a vanguard braider, activist and teacher in African American hair care and beauty. Photo by James Wasserman.

KOTC members will share stories, and facilitate a storytelling circle where all are welcome to share their own stories about how “beauty is as beauty does.” “The Will to Adorn: Phila- delphia Stories” occurs in conjunction with an effort

by the Smithsonian Center for Folklore and Cultural Heritage, which is under- taking a national multi- year initiative exploring how African American identities are communi- cated through cultural aesthetics, arts of the body, dress, and adornment.

These events occur against the backdrop of Folklore Project’s current exhibition, “Cultural Ex- change,” which honors four local Black men who, for 40+ years, have used folk arts and trade to sup- port community cultural development. Work by African Cultural Art Fo- rum (Rashie Abdul Samad and Sharif Abdur-Rahim), Frito Bastien, and Isaac Maefi eld is on display. Cultivating folk arts

In addition to the Franklin stove, Benjamin Franklin is said to have invented a rocking chair with a fan, an early version of swim fins and the armonica, a type of musical instru- ment made of glass bowls.

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and social change since 1987, the Philadelphia Folklore Project works to build critical folk cultural knowledge; sustain vital and diverse living cultural heritage in communities in our region; and create equitable processes and practices for nurturing lo- cal grassroots arts and hu- manities. For more infor- mation, call 215.726.1106, email pfp@folkloreproject. org, or visit www.folklore-


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