South Side braiding artist Shani Crowe has considerably expanded her influence in recent years: from learning the skill as a child by watching her family braid, to having her own clients at the age of eleven, to representing the United States in the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale with “Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line),” in collaboration with Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez. Her work has been featured in the New York Times as well as Vogue, Elle, Essence, Ebony, Allure and Glamour. She created Solange’s bedazzled halo hair look for her SNL performance of “Cranes in the Sky” and Madison McFerrin’s stunning Pitchfork Midwinter hairstyles. And she’s just turning thirty. She talks about her speedy yet steady trajectory.
How and when did your work with braiding start? Why did you choose hair as the medium for your practice?
I started braiding as a child. I picked up the skill by watching my aunts and older cousins braid, and from the feeling of having my own hair braided—then I practiced on dolls and myself. I braided my own hair from fifth grade onward, and the styles I created on myself attracted clients, which I started taking between the ages of eleven and twelve. Braiding is a skill I grew up with that has positively impacted my life by allowing me to become an entrepreneur and have a taste of financial independence at a young age. It gave me the agency to create my own unique looks and allowed me the privilege to beautify other black women and be paid for it. Braiding isn’t the only medium I use in my artistic practice, but it’s important for me to give honor to my experience and all that it has given me. Hair is an important part of black and African culture. It’s a means through which we express ourselves and unfortunately, is one of the most policed aspects of our appearance—because of this, black hair is always political. Black people are the only people whose hair is deemed unacceptable by mainstream society in its natural state. One of the first photos that surfaced of Michelle Obama post-White House was one with her hair in its natural state. That says a lot.
What do your hairstyles represent?
The braided styles I create have various meanings, but one of the most popular looks from the “Braids” series is called “Fingerwave Saint.” Growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the nineties—the era of Pump It Up! spritz and Pro Styl gel-shellacked hair—I always admired the artistry of sculptured ponytails, French rolls, and especially fingerwaves. Creating fingerwaves on black hair was a process that started with perming and relaxing the hair, or chemically straightening it, slathering it in gel, then delicately molding waves with your fingers and a comb and sometimes a curling iron. I thought it was beautiful, but it was deemed ghetto by mainstream society. When I created this look I wanted to recreate fingerwaves with cornrows and present them in the highest form, that of a deity, a saint. A being who is all pure light, goodness and peace, in its final form, a presence that is perfect and impervious to negative opinion or any opinion at all, one who just is, and is appreciated, admired and praised just because they are. My hair work is always intended to venerate the image of the black woman.
Tell us about the human connection created by beauty rituals and hair adornment. How would you describe the relationship with someone whose hair you’re braiding?
Braiding is physically connective because I’m touching and manipulating the hair on someone’s head. During the process we talk and there’s usually a bit of counseling involved. The practice itself is an intergenerational cultural staple among people of African descent so it’s inherently connective to our ancestors and our homeland.
Hairstyling tips by Shani Crowe Favorite local shops:
“I love Star Beauty on 76th and Stony Island. They have a great selection for such a small store, but the best part is the staff: they are some of the friendliest ladies and they give excellent customer service. Another choice for sheer volume of braiding hair is Urban Beautique on 35th Street. Huge store with a great selection of fashion accessories.”
“Clean parts go a long way—also go easy on people’s edges!” Learn more about Crowe’s work at shanicrowe.com. Small prints of her work are available for purchase on her website, and large originals are available on request.
Journalist Isa Giallorenzo was born in São Paulo, Brazil and has elected Chicago as her beloved home since 2009. She runs the street-style blog Chicago Looks and wants to see this town become one of the fashion capitals of the world.