locs, curls: this visual artist’s pieces are made of real hair!

August 20, 2018
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By Shanece Austin, AFROPUNK contributor 


Adebunmi Gbadebo is a visual artist who creates art from the crowns of people from the African diaspora. I haphazardly stumbled upon her Instagram after being connected to the Newark, NJ creative community.  At that time, I had just made my final decision to cut off my locs that I’d been growing for two-years. The timing was divine and her work intrigued me. When it came time to cut my locs off, throwing them away didn’t feel natural but this presented option did. So we scheduled a meetup, we exchanged genuine stories and I donated my locs to her art. Immediately I knew I had made the right decision.  It’s like that part of my journey will forever tangibly live on in a masterpiece and now will have journeys of its’ own. The way  Gbadebo weaves together journies to make a work of art is powerful and uplifting.

Here, I catch up with her to find out her inspirations and process for creating such cultural, historical and political art.


SHANISUNDAZE: Where are you from? Does that influence your work in any way?

ADEBUNMI GBADEBO: I grew up in the suburban town of Maplewood, NJ, located on the border of Newark, about 20 minutes outside of New York City, and down the hill from very affluent neighborhoods.  I believe that the diversity of the town made me acutely aware of various cultural, racial, economic and political differences,  but it was really my mom who shaped my awareness around these themes and taught me to question, criticize, create, read, explore, and know who I was.

I definitely see the parallels between what my mom was instilling in me and the type of artist I am today. My work began out of a rejection of traditional art materials, because of their association with Whiteness. Art history teaches us that the masters, the best to have ever used paint or to be worthy enough to be painted, were white men. Not only did I reject that narrative and its materials, but I went on to find a material and a history to root my work in that positioned the people who looked like me as central. I was doing what my mom taught me.

Fadeyi(Great Grandma) silkscreen on human hair (21inx17in, 2017)

SHANISUNDAZE: Take me through your creative process. What does that look like?

ADEBUNMI GBADEBO: My process is really controlled by my material. Where most artists aim to be the masters of their material, I submit. My material dictates where I go to get the hair, such as the barbershops or someone’s home. I have even gotten hair as far away as Spain and mailed to me from two sisters in Milwaukee. Because every person\’s hair is different I have to handle it differently. Some hair could be washed, some hair can’t, some hair could be sculpted, some hair has to be made flat, gray hair has a different texture from black hair, dyed hair acts differently from curly hair. So I am constantly changing my approach to accommodate the distinct properties of the hair. I believe that’s why I have been able to employ so many different techniques in my work; sewing, paper making, silk screening, sculpting, painting.

‘Da Da Closeup’ human locs and wire (20ft., 2015)

SHANISUNDAZE: How did this series come about?

ADEBUNMI GBADEBO: While in my junior year at the School of Visual Arts in my BFA program I made a decision to stop using traditional art materials. Eventually, I landed on human hair from Black people. Our hair is so connected to our culture, politics, and history. It is history, DNA. Once I found my material, I spent a year just collecting hair. I would put out “Call for Hair” post on my social media, and I started building relationships with barbers and their customers. During this year, I did extensive research on the history of black hair especially before the time of the Atlantic Slave Trade and European Colonialism. With the help of a friend, I contacted Co-Author,  Lori Tharps, of, “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots to Black hair in America,”  and asked her what did she want her readers to get from reading her book? She responded, “Black hair is much more than stuff resting on our head. Black hair represents power, and beauty and a direct connection to our African culture, whether we recognized or not.” It was after that conversation where the work began.

SHANISUNDAZE: Who are your biggest influences?

ADEBUNMI GBADEBO: My mom is my biggest influence. She introduced me to art. At three, she took me to my first art class at the Newark Museum. I was in this program, where children and their parents took art classes together. My mom is a lawyer, but it was in those classes where I got to see her artistic ability. She is a really great draftsman and sculptor. As I got older I found out my dad was a painter in college but pursued Engineering. My Aunt and cousins could all paint and draw, but pursued the sciences and the medical industry. Art became the way I expressed myself and made space in my family full of professionals.

‘Black Gold Close Up’ Human hair sewn to canvas (62inx50in, 2015)
‘Black Gold Close Up’ Human hair sewn to canvas (62inx50in, 2015)

SHANISUNDAZE: What is one of your greatest accomplishment to date?

ADEBUNMI GBADEBO: Probably my greatest accomplishment was my first solo show. I was still in school at SVA  and a curator who has now become my art mom, Adrienne Wheeler, approached me about having a one-year solo show at Rutger Universities’ Paul Robeson Gallery. The exhibition got a mention in the New York Times, and I gave my first professional artist talk. Although I am so grateful for all of those successes, I say this show is important to me because I prepared for that show all while dealing with the sudden news that my mother’s kidney had failed. I was devastated, I remember falling out and crying in my studio when I heard what happened. During that time I made a commitment to myself that no matter what happened in my personal life, I would never give up on my art! One year later from that show, I found out I was a match and began the transplant process. One month from the transplant I had my first two-person show in the Lower East Side. So that solo show is a reminder to the commitment I made to my career and myself to never give up.

SHANISUNDAZE: Where do you go for inspiration?

ADEBUNMI GBADEBO: Inspiration is not the thing I seek that gets me to my studio to make the next piece. I go to my studio because of the responsibility I have to the people who give me a part of their body to create something with it. I am obliged to them to honor that exchange. I go to my studio because it is there where I am most myself. Inspiration isn’t necessary for my work. I have to make the work whether I feel inspired or not. But if I do consciously seek inspiration I’ll go to a book or an art show.

SHANISUNDAZE: Explain the feeling of knowing when a project is complete?

ADEBUNMI GBADEBO: I’m dealing with a material that carries its own energy. Just because the hair is removed from one\’s body doesn’t mean the energy of that person dissipates. So usually, I find that the hair lets me know when it’s done. And sometimes the work does not get finished because I have not received the hair that will complete the piece.

SHANISUNDAZE: Where can one see your work up close in personal?

ADEBUNMI GBADEBO: For the last year and a half, I have had a studio in Newark, NJ at Project for Empty Space connected directly to Newark Penn Station. I am always open to studio visits. Also, in October a part of Newark Arts Festival I’ll be exhibiting in an all-women group show Curated by Armisey Smith on Halsey Street in Newark and in September I will be exhibiting in a group show at Morris Arts, Morristown, NJ curated by Adrienne Wheeler. My website is also another way to stay up-to-date with what is going on with me.

* SHANISUNDAZE is a visual artist + style enthusiast + logophile. She is the creator of @TheSanaaiCloset. Catch her wave at