An Afro in the Office

By Hannah Witner

What if I told you that the history of photography is being written with finger waves and cornrows? 

With her quirky sense of humor, Summer 2015 Artist-in-Residence Endia Beal is creating a body of work that resonates on a much more personal and socially responsible level. Beal is exploring corporate America and minority women by taking her narrative up to her hair and through her art.

In 2013, during a 5-week residency in Woodstock, New York, Beal took a group of middle-aged female co-workers, predominantly white and Hispanic, to an African American hair salon. Each chose a hairstyle that would typically be seen on an African American woman and agreed to have a traditional style portrait made of themselves in the hairstyle, contrasted with the dark suits and prim pearls of their corporate outfits. 

Beal’s goal was to create a dialogue about how minority women are seen in the workplace, compared to non-minorities and older employees. When her portraits of atypically styled women gaze out with their inquisitive stare, you can’t help but notice a certain truth behind her wisdom. 

Their gaze is both probing and striking, and communicates a feeling of knowing. They challenge viewers to consider the nature of their portraits. They challenge the viewers to ask themselves, why is this considered odd at all?

This series of photographs, titled Can I Touch It?, relates a visual language that often leads to assumptions about assumptions themselves, and the history of why these portraits really seem so different. 

“This idea of performativity crosses racial lines, gender lines, and generational lines -- people literally change themselves to fit into certain environments,” Beal says.

A photographer as well as a videographer who works with documentary-style ideas of marginalized individuals and groups, Beal makes sure that seeing her two mediums intertwine is a treat. While her photo work involves unorthodox portraits, her documentary video pieces also touch on corporate relationships. 

While earning her MFA in Photography at Yale, Beal interned in the university’s IT office. Her height and nonconformist red afro stood out among her predominantly shorter, white male colleagues. After hearing that some had an apparent fascination with her stunning “floating afro” peering over the cubicles, Beal decided to embrace their awe. 

In her video titled Office Scene, Beal invites a group of her male corporate colleagues to feel her afro, some for the first time, and then records their responses after touching and pulling it.

The recordings are shown over a video of an idle cubicle office floor, and the result is both eerie and comical because, at first glance, the video’s context is cryptic and mysterious. 

“I wanted to allow someone to feel something different – to experience something they never had before, even if it was uncomfortable,” says Beal.

During her art residency at McColl Center for Art + Innovation this summer, Beal will continue to explore the relationships between minority women and their counterparts in the corporate world. 

As one of the International Review of African American Art’s 16 African American artists to watch in 2015, there’s no doubt that Beal will continue to challenge and make history.