True to its name, the BRAID/WORK series by Sarah Beth Woods operates within layers of social and material meaning, revealing a deconstructionist character even as it replicates the physical act of weaving. In the creation of these pieces, Woods pulls apart the concepts that make them legible. BRAID/WORK includes a 2016 performance and collaboration between Woods and the Malian-American professional hair braider, teacher, and entrepreneur Fatima Traore. The pieces that make up the BRAID/WORK project are both sculptures and the ephemera of performing femininity and Blackness.
The BRAID/WORK series primarily consists of hair weaves and jewelry coiffed and pinned to foam forms. In She Bun (2016), two perfect chignons seem to float on the wall, with gold “door knocker” earrings woven into the black hair, connected by a thin gold chain. She Bun is almost minimalist in its presentation; like minimalism, it redirects one’s fascination with its precision to its constituent forms. Seeing the abstracted artificial hair and jewelry, a viewer is prompted to read the work’s material—one that, for all its artificiality, distinctly conveys race and gender.
Woods admits a fascination with the boundaries between perceptions of the artificial and the natural. It is at these intersections that she begins her collaboration with Traore. But their work concerns more than just a distinction between, say, real and fake hair, or real and fake gold; it explores the technological artifice of gender and the gestural iteration of race. Their work challenges the assumption of biologically constructed identities.
Seen alongside the sculptural pieces are photographs by Cecil McDonald, Jr., an artist interested in masculinity and Black culture, of a braiding performance by Woods and Traore that took place on May 13, 2016, at a warehouse space on Chicago’s West Side. During this event, the Brooklyn- and Nairobi-based artist Celmali Jaime Okonji recited poetry about hair while Woods and Traore worked. These photographs serve not only to document the performance but also to reiterate the critical thrust of the series: There is nothing natural or innate about womanhood or Blackness, and the performance of these identities takes real time, labor, and community to create.
This is not to say that race and gender are mere constructions and therefore irrelevant or that they operate identically. Rather, Woods’ work probes at the real boundaries that spring up around these markers of identity. Woods is a white woman who grew up in a primarily Black, middle-class neighborhood of Chicago, and she is highly cognizant of the dangers of appropriation her privilege affords. BRAID/WORK could be read almost voyeuristically, as the desire of white racial power to take the prettiest parts of the ethnic other for itself and discard the less appealing realities of systemic racial abjection.
But with works like A Big Diamond (2016), Woods confronts this desire with her sensitivity to feminist intersectionality. She simultaneously accepts the seductiveness of the abstracted forms of the racial other while she rejects its accessibility to her. The wreath-like form of A Big Diamond bears the braided trappings of Black hair and Black styling, but its decorative ornamental shape emphasizes their superficiality. Woods can shape and mold and braid Black hair, but cannot be Black. The whole of BRAID/WORK explores the limitations of experience in a racist, patriarchal society, but the series also opens up space for more complex interactions beyond complete stratification.
The performance aspects of BRAID/WORK insist that the sculptures, for all their formal beauty, are floating signifiers for identities that are more than merely aesthetic. They are parts of an iterative whole, in which the constituent parts are continually reasserted from outside and from within. Woods and Traore show that it takes more than a weave and jewelry to be a woman; it takes work.
Sarah Beth Woods is a Chicago-based multidisciplinary artist who uses the languages of craft, sculpture, and public engagement to explore the body by employing material culture, artifice, and adornment. Woods studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she focused on assemblage and interdisciplinary studies before returning to Chicago, where she earned a BFA at Northern Illinois University and an MFA at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Her work has been included in shows at the University of Michigan’s Work:Detroit space; Girls Club, Fort Lauderdale, Florida; A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn, New York; the Bob & Roberta Smith Kunstverein at Coventry University, England; New York University, Florence, Italy; and at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.