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Ruth Sutoyé: Shining a light on the stories of bald, black women

PUBLISHED: 14:17 27 March 2019 | UPDATED: 15:11 27 March 2019

Ruth Sutoye, together with Aliyah Hasinah, has curated and produced Bald Black Girl(s). Picture: Almass Badat.

Ruth Sutoye, together with Aliyah Hasinah, has curated and produced Bald Black Girl(s). Picture: Almass Badat.

Almass Badat

The poet and artist Ruth Sutoyé has co-produced an exhibition of film and photography about black women who choose to shave their heads. She speaks with the Gazette ahead of the launch of Bald Black Girl(s) in Clerkenwell next month.

The Bald Black Girl(s) photo exhibition will run at Unit 5 Gallery from April 12-16. Picture: Ruth Sutoye.The Bald Black Girl(s) photo exhibition will run at Unit 5 Gallery from April 12-16. Picture: Ruth Sutoye.

Homerton resident Ruth Sutoyé’s first haircut at a barbershop was an uneasy experience.

It took place towards the end of 2016 – a difficult year for the artist and poet – when after six months of careful consideration, Sutoyé committed to the idea of shaving off her long and flowing locks.

“I had been taking my brothers to the barbershop for years, but I had never stayed myself,” she explains.

“The day I had my hair cut was an experience in itself; my barber wasn’t sure about doing it – my hair was really long at the time.

The multi-faceted exhibition wants to shine a light on the stories and experiences of bald black women living in London. Picture: Ruth Sutoye.The multi-faceted exhibition wants to shine a light on the stories and experiences of bald black women living in London. Picture: Ruth Sutoye.

“I had people asking: did you lose a bet with your boyfriend? Does your dad know about this? “I just thought: ‘No, today I want to cut off my hair and there’s no big grand decision behind it.”

Two-and-a-half years later, Sutoyé is putting the finishing touches to her Bald Black Girl(s) exhibition; a multi-disciplinary project focusing on the experiences of bald black women primarily in London.

Together with co-producer Aliyah Hasinah, Sutoyé has put together an event that will “lean into conversations and themes around women choosing to shave their heads” via a photography show, a poetry film premiere, a workshop and a live performance night at Camden’s Roundhouse.

“Bald Black Girl(s) brings the experiences of bald black women in London from the margins to the forefront,” adds Sutoyé. “Through visual art, photography, film and a workshop, it is bringing conversations about masculinity, femininity, androgyny and barbershop politics in to a space where people can engage with it.”

The exhibition will also feature a premiere of the poetry film, Reign. Picture: Ruth Sutoye.The exhibition will also feature a premiere of the poetry film, Reign. Picture: Ruth Sutoye.

This multi-faceted exhibition is funded by Arts Council England and opens at Free Word, in Clerkenwell, with a premiere screening of a poetry film on Wednesday April 10. After the credits have rolled on Reign – a short movie set in a world where only bald black women exist – there will be poetry from Chelle OT and Anita Barton-Williams, before a panel discussion chaired by Hasinah featuring Liv Little, Gina Atinuke Knight, Sarah Atayero and Sutoyé herself.

After a day’s rest, Bald Black Girl(s) will return with the main event; a photography exhibition comprising of around 30 fun portrait shots of eight bald black women taken by Sutoyé (and previewed on her Instagram, here).

The free exhibition will open daily between April 12 and 16 at Unit 5 Gallery, next to Haggerston Park.

“I put a call out last summer for bald black women to shoot and film, and that had over 400 re-tweets on Twitter, which was my biggest engagement at the time.

“I only asked for around 20 women in that initial call out, but then I had over 200 people in my inbox; I had to close the call-out early as I didn’t know how I was going to manage it!”

The exhibition arrives in London at a time when famous faces like Laura Mvula, Julie Adenuga and Michaela Coel are thriving, and conversations about the experiences of bald black women are being had in the United States. Sutoyé and Hasinah’s programme of events will take things further, with a focus on telling these women’s stories free from prejudice or preconceptions.

“For straight women involved (in the exhibition), a lot of them have their sexuality questioned. People asking them: are you gay? It opens up homophobic conversations about masculine spaces and masculine presentation.

“It’s easy for people to compartmentalise others to ‘digest’ them. (We are addressing) the perceptions that you can’t be a bald black woman and still be feminine and soft.”

Clare Callan, Season Producer at Free Word, says: “Bald Black Girl(s) explores an every day experience for many women, bringing it to the fore in a way that’s playful, powerful and necessarily political.

“With our new season, we want to work with a cohort of exciting and visionary artists and are thrilled to welcome Ruth to the space.”

Away from the film night and photography exhibition, curators Sutoyé and Hasinah will also host an intimate conversation offering extra insight into the content of Bald Black Girl(s) and its different themes on Saturday April 13.

Sutoyé will return to Free Word on Thursday May 9 to run a poetry masterclass titled Bold Bodies: Exploring Bodyhood.

The final act of the exhibition will be a live event incorporating poetry, music, dance and art at Roundhouse, with the date still to be confirmed.

Bald Black Girl(s) is on from April 10-16. For more details, email: baldblackgirls@gmail.com.

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