by Mandy Messina

The first point of resonance with Juju Holton’s practice, was during a video shoot for one of my projects--they mention they wrap their head because they have retired from hair.

Intrigued, I ask them to unpack what they mean by the term. They explain that hair acts as a marker for ethnicity, gender, religion, and/or class. Regardless of the subject’s intention, hair is read politically, economically, socially. Natural hair, chemically altered hair, weaves and extensions, hair under a hijab or in a doek. Covering ones hair is an act of rebellion--it omits enough information that the subject occupies more than one category simultaneously. This makes it harder to shortcut to a stereotype.

For the rest of the afternoon I can’t stop thinking of Schrӧdingers’ cat. But instead of a cat, I think of disembodied hair simultaneously an afro, a weave, dreads, intricate braids…

“Hair is everything and nothing at the same time.” they explained as we sit down for an interview at The People’s Perk, a black owned coffee shop in Greensboro.

For the performance piece, (h)OURS, they sit in a wicker chair referencing the iconic Huey P. Newton image, and braid a friends hair into cornrows while calling for testimonials, exclusively from black members of the audience.

“I don’t want to hear from anyone but black people, because--(they) can’t speak to this. Because it's ours.

Talking to this idea of appropriation. Everyone wants to take and take and recreate and rebrand, but you’ll never know what it's like to have your mom work two shifts and come home (to braid your hair).”

We have to backtrack a little:

The primary reason Holton initiated this performance piece (and the environmental justice project I’ll get into a little further on) is because they wanted to learn how to surf.

Guilford College, where they study, offers an interdisciplinary course called, The Blue Mind, which is about the effects of living in, on, around or near bodies of water. One of the three lecturers leading the course, Maia Dery, encouraged students in The Blue Mind to participate in the Art Department’s annual juried art exhibition. Juju starts reading up on performance art - specifically Nato Thompsons Living As Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991 - 2011, which opens with this nice, light Michel Foucault quote:

What strikes me is that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or house be an object, but not our life?

Trying to understand the concept of life as form by applying it to their own experience as a black femme, they strike on the concept of braiding hair.

“At this point I had already retired from hair, so to speak, so I said well braiding--what is more powerful in form than getting your hair braided?”

They planned to speak first, while braiding, about how they got to the point of retiring from hair as well as their experiences with black hair during different periods, and then invite the black audience to share their experiences.

“I understand the power of narrative and how narrative can be used to transform, and create change.”

Holton makes the point, however, that often a person simply speaking about their lived experience is not enough - it can be refuted. Once that experience is recontextualized as art, others are more receptive to the concept, some even engaged enough to investigate further.

“Art can take those voices and put them into places that they would not be able to reach.”

By validating the lived experiences of disenfranchised voices through scientific methodology, approaches like PAR (Participatory Action Research) provide similar benefits.

Holton realizes the power in combining both methods within their grassroot activism in Greensboro and beyond.

“I have dedicated a lot of my time and energy into grassroots organizing and learning about community injustice and policy work, and so it's, now I have this whole shift this semester where I’m learning about art and using art to represent.”

They mention the impact The Morris Justice Project has had on their practice - specifically the Stop And Frisk/Broken Windows project.

“As a researcher and as an activist (…) my dream is to do something like that in Greensboro.”

This merging of art and activism is something they incorporate in another piece that came out of the same class. An environmental justice project called H2afrO.

Highlighting a 2010 tragedy in Shreveport, Louisiana, Holton emphasizes the inability and fear associated with swimming, respectively, for many African Americans as falling under the umbrella of environmental injustice issues. In this one instance of many, 6 teenagers drowned after wading in shallow water and stepping off a hidden 25 ft. drop-off in much deeper water.

“My research found that if I have a fear of swimming, I’m not going to bring my child around the water (…) it’s a pattern, but patterns can be changed, this project really wants to pivot and bring awareness to the fact that this is important.”

Coach Kelcey, a woman of colour and Guilford College alum, owns their own company called SwimPhilly, out of Philadelphia. The proposed H2afrO program would offer three 30 min sessions for 3 weeks to three groups, (ages 4-9, 9-teens, as well as an adult class).

“Kelcey would come in with the actual swimming knowledge and I would come in with this concept of environmental justice and how this project fulfills that.”

“Policing is an environmental justice issue.” she tells me, as a means of explaining the theorist, Robert D. Bullard’s term Environmental Racism.

Holton emphasizes the need to broaden our understanding of environment to “include where you work, where you play, where you learn, where you live--those are all your environment.” Considering that definition, the water crisis in Flint Michigan--now in entering it’s fourth unresolved year--stands out as a prime and poignant example of a sacrifice zone. These sites of environmental damage often occur in low-income or marginalized communities, because of the low risk of accountability. Disenfranchised people can’t fight back.

Similarly, closer to home for the artist, is the legal gagging of communities when they do start claiming for damage to property and health caused by the hog waste industry.   

“North Carolina has it all, it has the mountains, it has the beaches, and it also has some really, really interesting things going on in terms of social injustice. But there's a lot of wonderful people here in NC who want to do something about it.”


Juju Holto's Instagram.