Nneka Kai is an interdisciplinary artist from Atlanta, GA, whose practice is rooted in the exploration of personal and archival narratives through the material of hair. She received her MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was a research assistant at the Textile Resource Center. There she explored the history and conservation aspects of textiles within the Fiber & Material Studies collection. Not seeing herself represented in the objects, she decided to research the peripherals of textiles, in hopes of uncovering Black women’s material sensibilities throughout the diaspora. She also received her BFA from Georgia State University, where her material studies sparked her curiosity for hair. Currently, Nneka’s studio practice explores these findings through fiber, sculpture, and performance works, emphasizing methods of abstraction and opacity. She has performed her works in Chicago, Atlanta, and North Carolina. In 2021, Nneka exhibited in the Hair Stories Exhibition at The Newport Art Museum in Rhode Island. She is currently working as an art teacher while exploring her home in Atlanta, Georgia as a site of Black presence and preservation.
My studio practice begins with the question, “What is the free Black feminine form?” I explore this question through a multiplicity of interdisciplinary modes of making and thought. I am not bound to mastering one technique but believe in making something out of nothing, in using whatever the idea calls for. With this thinking, I collect inspiration from my lived experiences, Black theoretical text, and stories and mythology of Black women throughout the African diaspora, I reinterpret and extract material to unpack these silenced narratives to create openings for autonomy not only in artmaking but existing.
I employ Black hair, both real and synthetic to question Black identity and material culture. Hair as Praxis. By this I mean, what Black hair has done, what it is doing, and what it can be stretched to become. As a medium, it provokes me to explore my personal history, nuanced forms of cultural expression, colonialism, and positionality. Layered with the ideas of consumption, attraction, and disgust of Black feminine bodies. As a material, I push its bounds. It is no longer an object for adornment, but a radical tool that rejects western understandings of selfhood. It screams in its rebellion, it is wild and unruly. I grew up between my mother's legs, listening to the comb, the television, and her voice. Every two weeks, she taught me how to last. My practice is about lasting, about survival. Hair as primary, I use textiles techniques such as stitching, collaging, and weaving to play with forms that are rooted in identity, liminality, and embodiment.
Hair as praxis makes room to investigate the immaterial and the material body in relation to objects, histories, and space. My performance work is a collaboration of theater, movement, and sound. I find it important to put the body on the line. This urgency is necessary in the work. The Black feminine body has been stereotyped, essentialized, and co-opted by capitalism and racism and reclaiming it is something inching at freedom. The body is a site that is continuously adapting and reinvigorated by movement, noise, rhythm, and fluidity but tragically laced with the overarching cycle of failure. The idea of performance is not to find out but to discover.
The illegibility of my work is mirrored in my use of the color black. Black not only as a color, but as a concept, its unreadability, its quiet, but its magical ability to evoke presence. As a Black woman, I have witnessed/lived a in a world that never ceases its tactics to controll, surveil, and exploited those who look like me, so I seek to speak to/of/from Black women through abstraction. I play with notions of invisibility and visibility. Black is the content, but it forces the material, textures, and formations to converse in my works. I find that there is power outside of representation, where gestures and techniques are the meaning and the breath. I let the act do the talking.