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Shani Crowe And The Intricate Art Of Braiding

Shani Crowe considers herself an interdisciplinary artist. She is most well known for her stunning braided masterpieces that redefine wearable art and for her commissioned custom styles for celebrities like Solange. Originally born in Chicago, Shani received a BFA in film production from Howard University’s John H. Johnson School of Communications. Now she teaches art to kids at The University of Chicago Summer Lab. In addition to her own artistic projects, she also assists Chicago artist Hebru Brantley. She was trained to work with multiple mediums, ranging from photography, paint, and film, but choose to work with braids because she liked working with her hands and it was a medium familiar to her from her childhood.

It wasn’t always that way. Braiding was never considered a serious part of her artistic practice due to her own conceptions of braids being seen as solely practical and not belonging in the realm of art. Most people consider braids a functional beauty statement, something to be worn casually every day. But Shani was dedicated to elevating this practice to an avant-garde level, where braids were transformed into wearable art. Her first photo series ‘Braids’ was conceived when she was 12. Ever since, she’s been perfecting her craft, working as a sought-after local braider till her first solo show was realized in 2016. She goes beyond photographing braids too, Shani creates installations and sculptures that still incorporate her distinct love of braids. Her site-specific installation THRIVAL GEOGRAPHIES explores citizenship and notions of identity. Her other iconic installation, Rest in Peace, Rest in Power draws on her city of origin. It’s devoted to those who have died from gun violence in Chicago. The interest in braiding hair came from her own beauty rituals when her cousins or aunts would do her hair. She then graduated from being styled to the stylist practicing first with dolls, then venturing to do her family members’ braids and her own. Eventually, what had once been a past time had become an accidental business, allowing Shani to create intricate wearable works of art on her new clients.

Braids are typically temporary and confined to practical styles suitable for a client’s lifestyle. By removing considerations of wearability and time, my braids will live solely as works of art, immortalized in film and digital photography.  Beyond aesthetics, hair braiding in practice is a transformative and deeply connective tradition. I will examine those connections and relationships through the context of my own experience, inheriting a skill from my family, using it as a tool of self love, then spreading that love to my clients” – Shani Crowe

Her works do more than celebrate the art of braiding, they have come to represent cultural identity. Braids have a long history. Different places have different styles, all steeped in cultural significance that is sometimes lost on some. With the likes of the Kardashians rebranding and appropriating traditional styles, Shani’s work is a way to preserve, honor, and in some ways, protect the legacy of African braiding. Through the hairstyles, a history of adornment, black identity, and more specifically, diasporic African identities are explored. She isn’t here to tell people what styles they can and can’t wear, instead, her task is linked to celebrating creativity as well as the practice of creating high-quality, authentic braids.

 Photo Credit: Justin Hardiman

For the freestyle designs, she aims to always make her client feel regal. Each design is completely unique and highlights her client’s dignity. The cowrie shells she incorporates into these designs are significant. They were once used as a mode of currency, and now Shani draws on their history, to redefine her own, using them instead to represent her own value. Shani also raises questions relating to what is appropriate or professional for people of color to look like or wear in certain locations. Often braids, cornrows, or other hairstyles are deemed inappropriate in workplaces: “it feels imperative to add my voice to this conversation, to help define my culture with an artistic perspective rooted in Black unity and empowerment.” – Shani Crowe

For Shani, the process of braiding is as important as the result. Her designs on average range from five to six hours, depending on how detailed they are. That’s a lot of time to spend with one person, and a lot of conversations you get to have. In this way, braiding is more than the final product and making someone look and feel confident and beautiful, its also about the behind the scenes moments of getting to know someone. The iconic halo and style she did for Solange for Saturday Night Live took more than fifty hours. It was a detailed design made up of around 30m of braided hair complete with 2000 individual Swarovski crystals. Solange was Shani’s first celebrity client, and with only a week’s notice to come up with the stunning wearable masterpiece, Shani worked tirelessly over the course of three days. Like all her works, it was a labor of love.

By Raramai Campbell
Cover by Shani Crowe and Saint Heron