Katarra LaRae Peterson’s Hair Journey

“I began putting hair on the paintings to make a point. Why do you just walk up and have enough agency or entitlement to claim things that are not yours? That was the starting point.”

By Julie Schmoll

Katarra’s living room turned studio space

Working from her airy living room in the Bronx, Katarra LaRae Peterson weaves together her careful reflections on Black community and representation with explorations in line.

Her voice is bright and lively as she explains, “I’m lucky enough to have a bedroom big enough to fit my sofa, my bed, and the living room I’ve turned into Dexter.” Plastic sheeting covers the walls and floor, allowing her to paint freely in the space. “Both my living room walls are for painting and I have a really long hallway that leads to my front door and some of my larger works are on display there.”

It’s from this space that she shares her background and growth as an artist with me. “As I have matured in my practice, I became more interested in injecting some part of my identity into the work.” Between drawing, watercolor, print, canvas and more, Peterson explains, “A lot of my process is exploratory, so I’ve just been exploring. Not everything has to be the western canon of painting tradition.” She’s even losing the frame on some of her bigger pieces and letting the work flow-sometimes right off the canvas.

“Hairscape 6”, Kanekalon and mixed media on canvas, 60x54 in, 2019

Peterson’s work brings voice to some of the most important conversations of our time. With a light touch she makes a point clear on race, equity, justice, representation, and respect. She shares, “Hair has just always been kind of this thing. Hair in the Black community has always had so much importance, for so many reasons. It has been legislated against, there were maps to freedom braided into people’s hair; it’s criminalized in some places still to have braiding shops in America. And so when I came across synthetic hair as a material to incorporate, I was like, oh my gosh, this touches on so many things. It relates to my personal identity and it relates to the identity of a lot of other people, but it is technically just a plastic material.”

“I got excited both by how open-ended and how specific it is,” she continues. “I lean more into this outsider art way, which is a southern Black art tradition of just really making things out of what is around you. In 2016, I started a small series called ‘No, You Can’t Touch My Hair.’ I have spent a lot of my academic time in predominantly white environments and I can’t count the number of ways my boundaries have been violated. Like, complete strangers will come up behind you, they don’t know you, they don’t speak to you and they just start pulling at your braids, pulling at your afro — it feels very invasive.”

“And so I was thinking, okay, where is a place that someone would never think to do that? And as an artist I thought of, of course a museum or gallery. You would never walk up to a Picasso and drag your hand across it. I began putting hair on the paintings to make a point. Why do you just walk up and have enough agency or entitlement to claim things that are not yours? That was the starting point.”

From Katarra’s “No You Can’t Touch My Hair” series, 12X16" with variable hair, synthetic hair, thread, oil and acrylic on canvas, 2016
From Katarra’s “No You Can’t Touch My Hair” series, 12X16" with variable hair, synthetic hair, thread, oil and acrylic on canvas, 2016

“Now I am scaling up what I did with the ‘No, You Can’t Touch My Hair’ series, the ten or so large pieces that I have been incorporating the hair into. It’s a satisfying marriage of some of my older works from college. They are landscapes that I am incorporating texture and elements of outside art into. They are very satisfying. It feels like me. It looks like my work and I’m using the hair for a reason.”

“I have a perspective I’ve been coming from making the work, but I’m not interested in dictating what people get out of it. That’s why they are called something as vague as “Hairscapes” and letting people engage with it on their own terms. I’ve gotten a really positive response.”

The magic of her work is how she can take serious themes and bring in an element of levity. The resulting work is balanced between approachable and serious. “I did a series of works called ‘Melanated Icons.’ Each one was nine separate drawings that I compiled digitally to become the edition of prints that I produced last year.”

“Supa Woman” from “Melanated Icons”, 13.5x17.25”, limited edition digital prints on Somerset velvet paper

When asked if she had one she liked best, Peterson responds, “You know I would go through and do all nine drawings for each print and I don’t know which one’s my favorite. I love the stereotyping that has occurred around the lore of the strong Black woman! Over time it’s ultimately been damaging, this idea that Black women are Super Woman and we don’t get tired and we can do anything.” It is an unfair standard to have to live
up to. This piece explores the dichotomy of how Black women have risen to the occasion in dealing with navigating challenging cultural narratives and the stress it puts on them as people. “Even in its playfulness, I think that the Supa Woman carries a little more weight than the other three.” Laughing, she continues, “It’s a seductive way of addressing all
of these things.”

“Afro Hepburn” from “Melanated Icons”, 13.5x17.25", limited edition digital prints on Somerset velvet paper

During Miami Art Basel 2018, Peterson presented a range of her work at Aqua Art. She shares with me how her works impacted the audience. “I did a project where I was live-braiding with Kanekalon hair the entire duration of the fair and I had my Melanated Icons on display and some of the No You Can’t Touch My Hair work. Black women would come sit down and feel seen, be tearful, be heartfelt, be so excited to see a Black woman in the show.”

“I think they are fun, but they also speak to a point about representation. Are there any women of color whose images are so ubiquitous that you can picture them?” She lists recognizable images of white women, “the Farrah Fawccet, the Breakfast at Tiffany’s- How can I address this? I’ll admit that [the Icons are] playful, but they definitely do make a point.”

“When I had gotten back from Miami, I was pretty much exclusively into the braiding thing, like, just these big huge braids, purple, blue, red, whatever and I hadn’t been doing much drawing and I started messing around with the drawings, watercolor studies of the braids. And through social media, I came across Alma Thomas and I loved Alma Thomas, but I had forgotten about her; as soon as I saw the colors, I was like, oh my gosh, it’s a similar mark, but I am orienting it a different way. And she is such a great hallmark and call back, and her colors are so seductive.

I can do these as homage because that’s where I got the idea. The really long one, Iverson, came from the basketball player. He was known for having the most beautiful braids- cornrow hairstyles. He would be sitting courtside and his mom would be doing his hair. I started looking up different hair braiding patterns that he used to wear and that’s how the initial composition of that came up. It’s thinking of them as a strand of hair or a braid, always coming from the perspective of the line.”

“Antenna Iverson”, 24x53 in, watercolor on Somerset velvet paper, 2019

“I watched my mother, come Sunday night, mimic caucasian hair as much as possible so that come Monday morning, she would look professional and so it was always interesting to watch that. Part of where my love for this comes from… watching her always doing her own hair. She was super creative and I thought it was interesting. I thought, ‘This is who you are, be who you are when you go to work on Monday. This is what your hair looks like.’ but it was more layered than that. And I get that now. Of course I understood it to an extent then, but you know, it’s different when you are also an adult in the job market and you’re like ‘Y’all are serious about this!’ The way that it grows out of my head is just really unacceptable to you.”

“Hairscape 4”. Kanekalon and mixed media on canvas, 59x52", 2019

“At the end of the day, hair styling, yes it has all these different meanings, community, entrepreneurship, agency- for a lot of women who maybe didn’t have skills for certains kinds of employment but who are able to support their entire family because they braid hair out of their kitchen. To take these hair works and pay reverence to that sort of tradition by putting them in a space to be revered on as large of a scale as possible is the ultimate goal. The goal is to take up space, lots and lots of space. And also that air of whimsy. If you walk into a space and there’s a neon braid nine feet wide and snaking around a museum, what do you do? That’s so fun to me. But it also has the capacity of making a really interesting point about what is seen as craft, what is seen as art. What is seen as skill, what is seen as trade.”

“If there’s a through line in my work, from ten years ago until now- the line. How much can I do with this line? And what can I make this line out of, and how can I manipulate this line? Sometimes the line is a braid, sometimes it is a staff in a painting, sometimes it’s perspective-wise to indicate space. It’s so efficient, so communicative, so versatile and I just like to use it for everything. I’ll only use the figure if I’m trying to make a specific point. And it’s usually not a figure that I have invented, for example, the icons.”

“Initiation Braid”, Kanekalon and mixed media, 148', variable width, 2019. Over 100 feet of it were live-braided every day during Miami Basel 2018.

“My next goal is to expand into installation. I keep sort of outgrowing the surface. I think about walls and how big these braids can really get and how fun it would be to have surrealistic experiences with this really lightweight material that comes in a billion colors. I’d like to see how large the paintings can get and how big the braids can get and I would really like to build environments in gallery spaces, public spaces, and museum spaces that center this work.”

You can find more of Katarra’s work and follow her on Instagram: @katarralaraepeterson

Abstractions Magazine

Visual arts publication by Tessera Arts Collective dedicated to championing the work & practices of womxn & non-binary abstract artists of color

Tessera Arts Collective

Written by

Studio, gallery, & nonprofit elevating the work of Black and Brown womxn abstract artists. Instagram: @tesseraartscollective

Abstractions Magazine

Visual arts publication by Tessera Arts Collective dedicated to championing the work & practices of womxn & non-binary abstract artists of color

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