Credit: Laetitia Ky
Laetitia Ky's strong hair and its powerful message
This story forms part of a collaboration with Dazed Beauty -- a new platform dedicated to redefining the language and communication of beauty. This interview was originally conducted in French.
Growing up, Laetitia Ky never gave her hair much thought, although she learned how to braid at the age of five by watching her mother and took to it easily. "I really didn't care about my hair at all as a teen," she said over Skype with a laugh.
But things have changed. In the last two years, Ky has become "Insta-famous" for her intricate, seemingly gravity-defying hair sculptures that are in turn playful and political -- sometimes both, in a single image. There's the umbrella balanced atop her head; the bicycle; and the tree topped with real flowers and leaves; but also, the gun, captioned with an anti-violence message.
Born and raised in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Ky, now 22, earned a degree in business before realizing that the world of spreadsheets was not for her. Turning her attention to art, she was originally drawn to fashion; she bought a sewing machine and started teaching herself the basics with the help of videos on YouTube.
The shift to hair was entirely accidental. Two years ago, scrolling through Instagram, she came across an account with photos of hairstyles worn by women in pre-colonial African tribes. "Their hairstyles were so artistic and incredible," said Ky. "I had never seen anything like it."
Taking these styles as a starting point, Ky decided to try her hand at hair sculpture, but with a modern twist. "I did a lot of research and was very inspired by the traditional ways of dressing and doing hair that have been pretty much entirely erased," she said. "Things have come a long way, but even today kinky hair is taboo for some Africans. I want to look back to our traditions and draw from them."
Ky steadily shared her work on Instagram, and eventually one post -- in which she sculpted her hair into a second pair of hands -- went viral. In a two-week period, her Instagram account leapt from 4,000 to 30,000 followers (today Ky has 137,000 followers on Instagram and over 36,000 on Facebook). International magazines came calling.
By then Ky was well into her own hair journey. She went natural in 2012, after a bad experience with too-tight braids. "I looked for solutions on YouTube to get my hair to grow back as fast as possible, and that's when I discovered the natural community, which I didn't even know existed," Ky said.
In the Ivory Coast of her childhood, "the norm was to straighten your hair. So when I found the natural movement, I was fascinated. That's when my hair became important for me," she said.
Today Ky wears long extensions, adjusting their length depending on the design she wants to create. She sculpts by herself, using little more than wire, wool, a needle and thread. Ky never knows how much time she'll need to complete a project: so far, she said, a single piece has taken anywhere from 20 minutes to up to three hours.
"I don't really plan a lot before doing them -- I'm a pretty intuitive person," Ky explained. "I mostly just have an image that comes to mind, like a flash. Then I try to draw it and figure out what I need for it to stay in place.
"Anything can inspire me: the news, an object. There are no rules," Ky said.
Underlying it all, though, is a desire to promote a vision of African beauty grounded in pre-colonial aesthetic traditions; a commitment to body-positivity; and a well-defined feminist politics.
"Sexism exists everywhere, but in Ivory Coast there's still an attitude that women aren't supposed to be ambitious. My parents divorced when I was young, and my mom did everything on her own. So, it was hard for me to accept, later on, when I started hearing that women belong in the kitchen. I think it's really important to spread a message of equality," Ky said.
The decision to make her art more overtly political has come with time. "When I started posting, my sculptures didn't really have meanings behind them; I just thought they were pretty," Ky said. But as messages began to come in from women telling her that her posts had boosted their confidence, she came to understand the impact her work could have. When it comes to activism, Ky said, "people remember what you say because of how you say it. My art is a bit unusual, so I thought, if I add a message, maybe it will stick."
In 2017, Ky stepped into the #MeToo movement with a sculpture of a man lifting up a woman's skirt. "#MeToo spoke to me as a woman, as an African, as someone who has experienced everyday harassment," Ky said. "Don't remain silent," she wrote in the caption, encouraging women to contact her if they wanted to talk. Ky's inbox was soon flooded. "Many of their stories were so sad, but it was gratifying that at least a few people were able to open up because of something I created. Those messages give me energy," Ky said.
Having launched her own clothing line just three months ago, she is now saving up to take acting classes with the goal of moving into film. And while she would not turn down a collaboration with another artist -- like, say, her idol Rihanna -- in general she is not interested in attempting her hair sculptures on someone else.
"It's important that I do it on myself because I want to spread a message of self-love," Ky explained. "So many artists, particularly women, hide behind their work. I think that implicating myself in each piece, and showing a certain self-confidence, could really help people."