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The Hairdos Of An Ivory Coast Artist Send A #MeToo Message

Laetitia Ky, an artist from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, has been braiding her hair since she was a little girl. Lately, she's branched out into new styling territory — hair as political art.

She was inspired by an Instagram account featuring historical hairstyles from African tribes. "I told myself, 'Wow, how is it possible to do such hairstyles? My ancestors are geniuses,'" she said in an email to NPR.

So she started creating and posting her own sculptural hairstyles around a year and a half ago. She molded her hair into a tree, hands playing a guitar, a bike, the African continent — including Madagascar. Over time, she's incorporated more political themes in the sculptures, posting for Earth day and denouncing gun violence.

When #MeToo hit the internet, she posted a particularly provocative hairstyle. All on top of her head, molded from hair, a male figure lifts up a female figure's skirt. She followed a few months later with a scale balancing male and female symbols for International Women's day.

We reached Ky via email to learn more about how her art. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you sculpt your hair, and how long do you spend making a style?

It depends enormously on the sculpture — some sculptures can take 30 minutes and others more than 2 hours. I shape the braids with metal wire. I sometimes add sewing, wool, fabrics so everything holds together or for decoration.

Do you ever wear your hair in these styles out in public?

I do hair sculptures for art and photography. To be honest, they're not very comfortable and when I keep them too long it can be painful. So I make the hairstyle, and I keep it in long enough to take the picture, and then undo it.

But one day, I made a bet with my little sister, and I went to the supermarket with one of my hairstyles on — a long peak standing up on my head. Everyone was turning around and taking out their smartphones. It was very funny. But that's been the only time I've gone out with one.

What inspired the scene in your #MeToo Instagram photo?

When the #MeToo movement started, and I saw all the testimonials that were happening, I was extremely happy that some women were finally daring to speak out. But I was sad because I was realizing that nearly all women have lived through sexual harassment or assault at least once. I, too, have often been harassed.

This visual came from the testimonial of a friend who lived through attempted rape. She was following the #MeToo hashtag but couldn't express herself openly. This filled me with anger, so I told her story by illustrating it with this image. She had told me about a moment where he tried to lift her skirt, and that's what inspired this image.

What about your latest Instagram photo, of the scale comparing men and women?

My most recent photo was inspired by March 8, International Women's Day. A scale with male and female symbols shows my desire to see equality, hence, weighing the same on the scale.

In the West, even if much work lays ahead, the fight for women's rights is much more advanced than in some other countries, where women are treated like sub-humans. It truly breaks my heart to see so much delay in certain parts of the world. My way of fighting that is through freedom of expression and my art, so I never miss an opportunity to speak out!

Do you think your styles have had an impact?

Yes, definitely, yes. Every day I receive messages from women who thank me, because what I do helps them be themselves, either as women or as artists.

I also open up people's minds, because some people tell me "at first I thought you were crazy and weird, but today, thanks to you, I can appreciate more works of art."

All these messages give me the strength to continue, because in addition to being playful, what I do is useful. A little girl who wanted to straighten her hair even changed her mind after seeing my photos. I'm proud to have had this impact.

What's your goal with your amazing hairdos?

I would like to help people not be afraid of expressing themselves, to be themselves and to live their truth fully. This is the first step toward happiness.

I would like to reach women especially, because in the world they are the most limited and the most judged. Let them have confidence. That's how they will achieve great things.

Mathilde Piard helped translate this interview.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.