"Tenderheaded" Portrait Series Explores Intersection of Black Hair and Self-Identity

Photographer Esdras T. Thelusma captures models in a natural, relaxed mood for the photo exhibit  "Tenderheaded."
Photo by Esdras T. Thelusma
Photographer Esdras T. Thelusma captures models in a natural, relaxed mood for the photo exhibit "Tenderheaded."
Throughout the decades, the hairstyles of black Americans have served as an innovative bridge between one's African origins and creative expression. Take the neatly rounded afros that signified the radical and resolute ideals of the civil rights movement, or the meticulous box braids and cornrows that spoke to the defiant hip-hop generation depicted in movies such as Boyz n the Hood and Poetic Justice. No matter the iteration, the ever-evolving styles have continued to stump Western beauty standards without once betraying the roots of black American culture.

Inspired by the imagery of iconic black styles shared on blogging platform Tumblr back in 2015, creative director and fashion stylist Margo Hannah began to conceptualize a project that would reimagine the hairstyles that characterized her upbringing in Miami's Overtown neighborhood. In collaboration with visual artist Esdras T. Thelusma, her vision will be materialized in the forthcoming visual art experience, "Tenderheaded." The portrait series, on display at Space Mountain Miami from Sunday, December 1, through January 25, 2020, will showcase inner-city styles popularized by black women.

“Black hair is an extreme form of creativity for black women," Hannah says. "It’s an extension of our identity, so I wanted to find a way to showcase women who aren’t necessarily shown as beautiful.” To celebrate the sources of popular black hairstyles, Hannah decided to orient "Tenderheaded" around dark-skinned black women who represent Miami's various black communities, including Overtown and Little Haiti. With the assistance of local hairstylists Tamiya Baker and Nicole Marshal, the models were able to reproduce hair trends from the '90s and deploy the hair tools that aid in many styles.

The title of Hannah and Thelusma’s visual project digs into the complicated history of black hair. "Tenderheaded," the colloquial term used to label a sensitive scalp, was also the title of a book by Pamela Johnson and Juliette Harris that influenced the direction of the photography series. A compilation of essays from black poets and authors, the book sheds light on the sensitivity of black hair and its profound effect on how black women are perceived.

“I feel like there’s no other cultural group that gets slack for expressing themselves through their hair," Hannah says. "However we choose to wear our hair has always been seen as some sort of political statement or issue, whether its Afro hair being resistant to white culture, or black women who decide to get perms or wear weaves being seen as them not being comfortable in their natural hair."

Respectability politics have trimmed and demeaned the value of black hairstyles for those who birthed them, but gives permission to other cultures to reinvent those same styles however they deem fit. Thelusma’s minimalist photography strips away the complexities plaguing black hair and permits the models to stand center stage in their own stories.

"I capture portraits in a way for them to dominate the shot,” Thelusma says. “I want to capture the realness in the person.” He accentuated the presence of the models featured in "Tenderheaded" by emphasizing the natural elements of their surroundings and getting to know the subjects during the photoshoots.

Thelusma, who also worked on the cover art for Miami hip-hop duo City Girls' debut mixtape and album, says he uses his camera as a tool to highlight and underscore the models’ respective qualities. “I love stuff that’s authentic, honest and true to the culture; I want to put that importance on [the models],” he says.

The seamless collaboration between Hannah and Thelusma produced an artful series that normalizes “ghetto” stereotypes. Hannah’s styling and Thelusma’s organic techniques invite viewers to intimately connect to each model, whether it's because they’re reminded of their own plight and their mother’s upbringing, or they're simply struck by the vivid, undeniable humanity present in each portrait.

Throughout the opening night, Hannah plans to weave a panel discussion and visual demonstration of black women's signature hair habits, including wearing hair bonnets and patting one's hair instead of directly scratching the scalp to preserve an intricate style. The add-ons are meant to elevate the purpose of "Tenderheaded" and help debunk the negativity searing the narrative surrounding black hair trends.

“It’s me being unapologetic with my culture and showcasing the beauty around me,” says Hannah. “I want black women to see themselves in these images.”

"Tenderheaded." Sunday, December 1, through January 25, 2020, at Space Mountain Miami, 738 NW 62nd St., Miami;