We had the good fortune of connecting with Nneka Gigi and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Nneka, how has your background shaped the person you are today?
I am originally from Buffalo, NY and grew up primarily on the east side of the city. I struggled with finding usefulness in my physical self as my dark skin, curves and hair texture seemed to oppose what beautiful and successful women looked like as I entered girlhood. I use to hate my hair. Being Nappy didn’t feel so happy but I realized it was “better late than never” when I finally not only understood the root of my self hate but I had the authority to pluck such nasty roots. Exploring and becoming fascinated by my Nigerian heritage has greatly impacted who I am today. Learning more about my Igbo heritage has given me a greater sense of self that I felt society, school and work experiences once took from me. Trying to learn my father’s tongue but specifically West African “hair-itage” completely transformed who I thought I was and who I knew I could be. Connecting traditional hairstyles with that of Black girl hair magic in the United States helped bridge an important gap for me. It also led me down a path to want to inform Black elementary girls that their hair is Beyond Adornment! It has ancestral roots that could help enhance their financial, mental health, critical literacies and more. Using my braid art helps me communicate with the creative world and that of academia, helping each see the benefits of using one another to enhance the learning experiences and life outcomes of Black girls all over. As I became a mother to a brilliant and beautiful baby girl for the first time this past February, this life initiative became that much more significant.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
Although I have created various gravity defying braid sculptures, it is my first sculpture, Amaka, and a headdress from a body paint session that I created several years ago that gives me a special type of joy. It took a lot of trial and error for me to get where I am today. I wasn’t always sure how I wanted to show up in the world as a person, let alone an artist. As a seamstress, I enjoyed designing garments and participating in New York fashion week events and designing for local brands in Los Angeles once I moved out west. However, I lost my love of making garments for hire once money felt like the primary object of desire. I would get booked to design capsule collections and make thousands of dollars with very few but revolving clientele but I still wasn’t satisfied. Once I started to dig more into my history and practice self love, I had a different agenda and sense of respect for what I put into the world. Society has enough people creating stuff just for the purpose of money. My goal is to break generational curses and I choose to do so through my art and educational advocacy efforts, both of which have grown to compliment each other.
A final note: I want readers to know that I will be doing a book drive to donate 3 books to 1,000 Black elementary aged girls. The books selected will be written by Black authors on the topic of loving your natural hair and braids. Through my discovery of self, my braids have been the most resourceful tool I could find to help me love myself while establishing confidence to address my mental health practices, economic competitiveness and media literacy skills. Black hair is inextricably tied to Black girls mental health and so much more. As I strive to explore the connection between natural hair culture, especially braids, with the multiliteracies of Black girls through my dissertation research, initiatives like this book drive keeps me actively disrupting the intellectual, physical and emotional violence Black girls face in and out of schools.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Okay, so I really love to eat and also patronize local Black businesses. I would definitely visit places like Hotville Chicken, Ackee Bamboo Jamaican Cuisine, Billionaire Burger Boyz and Trap Kitchen. Los Angeles was the entertainment capital and the pandemic has certainly changed that so I would definitely have to take advantage what’s available and safe. For instance, the Santa Monica Pier at sunset or night before it’s too chilly would definitely be a go to spot at least twice while they are in town. Los Angeles also has a lot of beautiful murals of the late Nipsey Hussle and Kobe Bryant that I think they would appreciate. Finally, taking a few hikes at places like Griffith Park or Kenneth Hahn to see beautiful scenery would be a must.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
To start, I must thank my life partner Zach and my daughter, Adaora. As I’ve been through some of the most critical developments of who I am as an artist, education advocate and mother in the past 6 years, Zach has been very supportive of my dreams, even the ones he couldn’t quite understand at the moment. My daughter has given me all the reasons to throw procrastination, fear, pity parties and more out the window. Being responsible for the life and spirit of another human being transforms you in a way that I can’t quite put into words. Her smile and soft scratches against my cheek are subtle but felt nods to keep going. Finally, I would be nowhere if it weren’t for my ancestors whom are no longer with me but have held me dear from their resting places. Grandma Margaret, Grandpa Sam, Uncle Cedric and Mama Shawn, thank you for always figuring out how to reach out to me when I needed you most.
Photographer: Zachary Bxllion (www.Instagram.com/zacharybxllion)