KOKOMO, Ind. – After the opening of Indiana University Kokomo’s senior thesis exhibition, Shailyn Nash posted a couple of pictures of her paintings on Twitter, hoping her 100 followers might like to see it.
When she woke up the next morning, she had hundreds of notifications on her phone, as viewers liked and retweeted her paintings, Our Hair, Our Story, My Story, which depict the relationship the Black community has with its natural hair. Within hours, she had more than 32,000 retweets and 191,000 likes on Twitter.
“I think what I love most about the reaction is that while people find it beautiful, they felt the meaning behind it,” said Nash, a senior in the new media, art, and technology (NMAT) program. “It’s started necessary conversations. I’ve had people reach out to me and tell me how they were inspired by it, moved to tears. That’s been what makes it successful. People feel it.”
She and fellow NMAT student Kaitlyn Isaac are featured in the senior thesis exhibition, which continues through Friday, December 17, in the IU Kokomo Downtown Art Gallery, 102 North Main Street.
Gregory Steel, associate professor of fine arts, was one of Nash’s advisors, along with Aaron Pickens, assistant professor of new media. Steel said the beauty of the painting draws viewers in, allowing them to understand its message.
“That’s what art is about,” he said. “The message and the beauty come together to create a piece of work that is significant, that communicates in the way the artist intended. That’s happening here. People look at it, and they understand it.”
Inspired by the artist Domonique D. Jacobs, also known as B-fly by Design, Nash’s work is comprised of three 30-inch by 40-inch paintings, each depicting a Black woman with a natural hair style, using synthetic hair glued and sewn to the canvas. The middle figure, with her back turned, has long corn rows down her back, with a strand of hair connected to the other two figures, as if they are braiding her hair. She also included a figure with an afro.
“I wanted to take this time to celebrate coarse texture, along with the other kinds of natural hair,” Nash said. “To us, it’s not just hair, it’s a culture.”
The styles reflect research Nash did about the meaning and purpose of braiding, noting that the practice dates all the way back to slavery.
“There were instances where our hair would be braided into certain patterns, to mimic maps, so slaves escaping would know which way to go,” the Kokomo resident said, adding that sometimes they would braid rice into pockets of hair to hide food for running away.
More recently, braiding is a social occasion in the Black community.
“The process of braiding is long, and we spend that time with family,” Nash said. “Traditions are passed down, and the technique is passed down.”
She completed the work in Pickens’s advanced painting class during the fall semester.
“To see her progress from her first painting to this work, I couldn’t be prouder,” said Pickens. “There’s been a lot of growth, even within this work.”
After she graduates in May 2022, Nash wants to be a professional artist, and plans to be based in Kokomo.
“I hope eventually to create a space in Kokomo where creatives can grow and learn,” she said. “People ask me, ‘Are you going to leave Kokomo? You have to leave Kokomo.’ I feel like there’s a stigma that in order to be successful, you have to leave. I don’t feel that way, and I don’t want others to feel that way. I want to create success in Kokomo.”
The IU Kokomo Downtown Art Gallery is open 1 to 7 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free.