April Hale knows what it's like to be judged by her hair -- or lack thereof. After undergoing chemotherapy at age 16, her hair fell out. Her classmates would often tease her and ask, "Are you a girl or a boy?" Rather than surrender to their taunting by purchasing a wig, she did just the opposite: She shaved off what was left of her hair and kept it that way, even after the chemo treatment was over.
"I had all these people making fun of me because I was bald," says Hale, who now sports an almost chin-length cut. "In a way, losing my hair kind of classified me. Before, when my hair was long, people didn't notice me much."
Hale's experience made her more aware of the judgments people make based on hairstyle, so when it was time for her senior project as a University of Memphis women's studies and art major, she spent a semester documenting women and their hair in a series of black-and-white photographs and Polaroids. Her work is on display at Java Cabana through April in a show titled "Hairstories."
In one image, a pregnant African-American woman stands naked, her breasts barely covered by thick dreadlocks that hang past her waist. According to Hale, who interviewed each subject before photographing them, this woman said she was often "sexualized" because of her dreads. Hale's image plays off of that perception, all the while emphasizing the pregnancy.
While some of her subjects are shown with their natural hair in a setting that seems familiar and comfortable for them, Hale mixes it up a bit by having some don wigs in settings appropriate for the particular hairstyles. For example, one subject, portrayed as a homemaker in a black '50s-style wig, is shown exiting the door of an old house.
In another photo, the same woman is portrayed with her natural hair styled in a boy's cut, wearing a guy's shirt, and sitting outside what appears to be a dirty trailer. The moods of the two photos are so dramatically different, it's a little hard to tell the same person is pictured.
Hale says she's not trying to push a feminist message nor is she trying to make a statement on stereotypes. The project is simply about objectively portraying hairstyles and the perceptions that may go with them.
Also running at Java Cabana through April is a complementary show featuring the mixed-media artwork of Java Cabana owner Mary Burns and titled "The Clothes We Love."
"I use clothing as a photo album. I've still got a little cheerleading uniform that I wore when I was a Booster Club cheerleader. And I have all these sundresses I wore when I was 2," says Burns. "I even have a pair of soccer socks that used to belong to an ex-boyfriend when he was kid. I just wanted to keep some part of him."
Several of Burns' favorite timeworn treasures are on display along with accompanying poetry and stories. Many of the garments were acquired at estate sales. She says she's enchanted by the idea of taking something that belonged to someone who's died and putting it back out into the population. Throughout the show, she'll be selling selected clothing that she's purchased for this very reason.
She's also exhibiting some collages and watercolors. Most of her collages address the danger of becoming a walking advertisement by wearing clothing with oversized logos.
"I won't wear anything that's got a name brand on it. That's stripping our culture of creativity and imagination," she says. "I like the idea of clothes being a personal expression of what kind of mood we're in, not a walking billboard."
Over the six years that Burns has owned Java Cabana, she's hosted a number of shows for other artists, but she's never displayed her own work. When Hale approached her about having the "Hairstories" show, it seemed like the right time to exhibit too.
"April is addressing the way our hair defines us and shapes us and makes us feel," says Burns. "To me, even though clothing is not permanent, it becomes a permanent part of our lives. It too expresses our personalities and how we feel."
"Hairstories" and "The Clothes We Love" runs through April at Java Cabana, 2170 Young Ave.