We're in someone's house. Judging from the belongings cluttering the kitchen table and the voices on the speakers, we're in the Black South. The voices are loud—they have to be, to be heard over the funk beats—and they belong to kin, batting around an old recipe for banana pudding that keeps changing with the telling.
That scene is a sound and sculpture installation at the Northwest African American Museum. The artist Tariqa Waters made it for her first solo exhibition in Seattle, a show that's full of masks and secrets in honor of the Southern women she comes from.
The kitchen table and chairs she put on display are spray-painted gold. The golden furniture is cluttered with mess: plastic bags from the dollar store, child custody papers, magazines, family photos, toilet paper, Black Barbie, Jim Beam, Newports.
The show is called 100% Kanekalon: The Untold Story of the Marginalized Matriarch. It includes four large photographs, four handmade ladies' church hats in glass cases down the center of the room, four oversize bags of candy-colored hair (Kanekalon brand) that evoke architectural columns, and the kitchen-table installation.
If you feel confused or disconnected looking at 100% Kanekalon, that's how the Marginalized Matriarch of the title feels everywhere but in this room, says Serenity Wise, NAAM's community engagement director.
The Untold Story, in the museum's intro text, is described as "a story that exists in the margins... It remains in the margins because it shouldn't be understood by everyone."
It is not intended to be essentially marginal, though, but personal, idiosyncratic. 100% Kanekalon is the way the hair brand advertises itself, and the phrase is a crack-up because it's entirely unclear what Kanekalon is in the first place, Waters said—you just know you're getting 100 percent of it. Waters is using the bright, totalizing languages and visuals of advertising to make fun of the idea of standardized purity.
Waters is not a documentarian in black-and-white tones. She documents her history in the same language with which she lives it: by vamping, exaggerating, and representing a familiar won't-quit drag fabulousness.
The art is its own "100 percent pure" weave with the real facts of an existence that requires baseball bats and Newports, and shows up decked out in sequined hats with golden veils. Those hats—transformed by their glass cases into crowns—are Waters's grandmother's own.
A year ago, Waters was asked to contribute a work of art to a survey of Seattle art. She said she was fed up with the more intellectual local representations of Black identity, so she made a portrait of herself full of attitude, and a blown-up version of it is now one of two sentries watching over 100% Kanekalon.
Both women, one seated and one standing, scowl. They look sideways, scouting for threats. They wear curlers in their hair and grubby slippers. One smokes a cigarette and leans on a baseball bat like a dandy with his cane, satirized. She wears a sheer nightgown and high heels, guarding a ramshackle door with the sign "Beware of the dog."
Her long Kanekalon weave is pulled up in a ponytail with a holder that has two big balls. The scrotal pearls on her head fashion-match the faux fur on her nightgown.
Waters moved to Seattle just a few years ago, from Atlanta. She grew up in Virginia. She's the mother of young children. She says the kids have taken notice that Atlanta was governed by people who looked like them while most of the Black people they see near their home in Pioneer Square are living without homes and families. Waters reports this with pain, missing home.
In 100% Kanekalon, an ancestral home feels like both an important premise and also shaky ground. Waters blew up a letter her grandmother received in 2014 after a DNA test by the company African Ancestry that revealed sequence patterns from the Fulani and Yoruba people of Nigeria.
The letter is real, and it's touching to discover that it took a woman until so late in her life to know something so fundamental.
Only one line feels like an anxious echo of the fishy properties of "100% Kanekalon" hair. It reads: "Your Sequence Similarity Score is 100%. This measure means that we are 100% confident in your result."
Waters left her hometown; the family photos on the golden kitchen table are old, and so too are the issues of Ebony. How much of 100% Kanekalon is nostalgia? That is probably not for Northerners to say, but it does feel like Waters's self-reflexive humor comes to the rescue a few times.
Like Beyoncé's video album Lemonade, so full of references that bloggers have written actual syllabi for it, 100% Kanekalon is its own code. Comparisons are inevitable—"You can't have two light-skinned women with a weave from the South doing work like this at the same time," Waters joked before the NAAM opening—and just in case anyone's asking, 100% Kanekalon was made before Lemonade's release.
To make one comparison and leave it at that, Beyoncé presents the cathartic release of smashing windows with her baseball bat and reconciling with her man at the end. Waters has her hand on the bat in a pose of constant vigilance. There isn't any story beyond that. There isn't any reconciliation.
For all its references to shared culture, 100% Kanekalon is also a specific family portrait constructed by a daughter and granddaughter who's also now a mother.
My favorite work, favorite because it's personal to me, is a square photograph of Waters's hands and a dirty ashtray. She's painting her super-long nails chartreuse, resting them on an official custody form she hasn't started filling out yet. The piece is loud from a distance, and quiet up close. I see my own white, single mother there. And I don't.