Central St. Martin's student Favour Jonathan makes art that celebrates black hair in all its forms.
In her recent project, "A Statement of Pride," she photographs herself in a variety of different hairstyles that she does by herself. Each photograph is styled as a passport photo. Jonathan playfully gazes at the camera or captures a profile shot of her styled hair, subverting a generally detached format and infusing it with style, personality, and charm. The intersections of race and gender affect how black women's natural hair is policed in classrooms and offices, so Jonathan's celebration of her hair is an inherently political act. She tells me she is inspired by the natural hair movement, and by her own experiences realizing she doesn't have to use relaxer, a chemical that straightens hair, if she doesn't want to.
The project recently led to an Apple campaign in which Jonathan photographed herself to promote the iPhone X. When we talk on the phone, she is bubbly and energetic as she talks about the versatility of black hair and the way she and her classmates uplift each other. She wants to encourage young people to see the beauty in their bodies, she tells me, and loves building community through her art. We talked about her photography, how she puts on shows at her own house, and using Instagram as an artist. Check out our conversation, below:
Can you start by telling me about how the project started?
Most of my work is looking into myself and then working with the idea of beauty and the way I am and how I feel. The "Statement of Pride" series started off because I'm always changing my hairstyle. I'm always experimenting. The amount of things that black hair can do, and the fact that it's sort of versatile, and it's a bit unstoppable and very political, it stands for everything that is power. I started documenting these pictures basically for myself to see growth and to see all the things I've done to my hair. I posted it, and a lot of people can relate to the same situations.
It's something that you get judged for whether you're going to work or in school. Serena Williams was playing tennis and she was told not to have beads in her hair because it was distracting. The hair has nothing to do with her sport. She's a very powerful woman, you shouldn't try and find something wrong with her.
Women of color have to go on YouTube to find out how to take care of our natural hair. My work relates deeply to the natural hair movement and how people spend money buying relaxer that change the texture of their natural hair so they can fit in. I found that really stressful and really disturbing. I went through the whole relaxer phase as well, and it's comfortable for some women to do that, but when you're growing up you get to the age of thirteen and then you feel like, "Oh I need to start relaxing my hair because this is what grown people do." People need to remember that it's not a part of puberty, it's not part of growing up. It's actually a choice. I want people to see how beautiful and versatile black women's hair can actually be.
How did you decide to use passport photos as way of relaying your message?
Passport photos are a means of documentation. Your passport photo is your identification, everything about you is in that little book. It has your photo in it, and there are so many from when you're little. I'm the kind of person that does a lot of documentation, time-based work, to see what growth looks like. I like to dig into the past as well. I just thought, let me have a copy of me and then I can look back and think about how I felt then. Most of the passport photos are of different personalities that I have, different women of power that I love. You take on that persona and you become even more powerful. This is why I think it's more important to have a lot of women of color on screen, and everywhere, really. There shouldn't be a reason why we should not be represented in the world, because there's so many young people growing up, and they should see that they can become any of these women. They can be as strong and powerful as these women, and they can believe in themselves and their skin and the power that their bodies really hold.
You mentioned elsewhere that your outfits also change depending on your hairstyles. Do you feel that different hairstyles allow you to embody different parts of yourself?
Yeah, it embodies me more in the mind. I could act like Queen Latifah all day, and all of these different rappers and musicians. In my head, I'm like, "Oh, I'm Janet Jackson," I just feel it. And with my dressing, I just dress to be comfortable. I'm happy with who I am. I don't really look too hard into that. There was a time where I was wearing five T-shirts one night, because I was really cold, and I wanted to be warm. I still looked good, and I felt good.
You once talked about how you had an art show at your house.
Yeah, I had an open house so that people could come in to see my work. We had food and drinks. I work at home a lot, and I also work at the university and my work has a place, it belongs within my space. You can tell what this work is about if you see everything surrounding me. You see how I literally live on this Earth, and everything just falls into place. I'm not really a fan of hanging my work on a plain wall. Everything has a story to it, and everything comes from my heart. It's best to see it in my own space.
I like my audience to feel comfortable, so the home setting is very important to me. Home is somewhere you should feel comfortable, with the food smell. I cooked some jollof rice, and my audience came and ate. They got to know everyone around them, we danced, and we all had fun. It gives the work life, and I was really happy with it.
I feel the same way! People always say, "Don't work where you live or where you sleep." but I love writing in bed. It's part of who I am, so why would I separate it from my daily life?
Exactly! When you come into my space, my hair cream, the towels, the clothes, everything is exactly how it would be if no one was there in the first place. Obviously I tidied up a bit. But you come in, you see the space as it is and how I live it. It was actually overwhelming, and I felt like I welcomed some people into a part of my life. I am an artist, but I also feel like I'm actually just living and discovering about myself. I would like to share that. You know that saying, "When you have, you give. Qhen you learn, you teach?"
Were you showing the work from your passport photos project, or was it different work at the house show?
They were there. There were also paintings, sculptures, and I do a lot of metal work as well. I love making metal sculptures. It's so therapeutic. I find it really relaxing, even though it's full of fire and heat. It's one of the things that makes me really happy. I showed sculptures, paintings, my cooking skills. A lot of things.
You're studying at Central St. Martins?
Do you feel like the experience of being there also influences your work, or is it separate?
My school environment is obviously like a normal school. I have friends from different pathways, and it's great because many of my friends are not in the same course as me. I've got friends in textiles, menswear, womenswear, jewelry design, graphics, all different things. I love seeing people create things that I haven't really tried. We all encourage each other, when someone's doing something we're all like, "Oh my God, that's great!" We lift each other up and stick together. Everyone's learning and growing and using the facilities to the best of their abilities.
I like your Instagram. You have beautiful images. Do you think of it as an artistic platform?
I view Instagram as a documentation folder where I go and put whatever is on my mind. But the thing about social media is that people get really attached to it, which is one of the things I have a problem with. I've seen that it gives many people social and mental health issues. People worry that no one is liking their posts.
You have to use it for yourself. Instagram is something you do for yourself. You post things that you like, that you want to share, that you've been thinking about. You have your good days, your bad days, just sort of when you're in the library researching stuff and you're like, "Oh I didn't know this, let me share it with a bunch of people." Things like that. That's what I use mine for, and I think a lot of people need to do that.
It's also a really great place to have a community and support other artists and people who do things like yours. My friends post their shows, and I just love it. Sometimes I see a picture without even looking at the name and I already know who it is from their style.
You recently had an Apple campaign. What was that process and experience like?
When the photos went up, it is quite overwhelming to see my face as huge as possible. But the thing I found amazing is the loads of women of color and young people saying, "Oh my God, this looks great!" They're seeing themselves in the two pictures of me.
A friend told me her little sister said that it was so beautiful, and those comments coming from really young people are just great. This is what I want to do. I want to make young people feel like they can do anything and you can have your face as huge as possible and you can take up space. You can do the things that you think are impossible, and that's why I love that project. I love that it's everywhere and anyone can see it.