In 2013, Endia Beal took a handful of middle-aged white women, and put some cornrows, fingerwaves, and other traditionally black hairstyles on them. The point she was trying to make is a fairly obvious one, if you've ever been a black person in a corporate environment—aesthetic choices that are racialized in any way become signifiers for something greater. Braids are viewed as unprofessional, afros are curiosities to be manhandled, and dreads mean you must be a pothead, just ask Zendaya.
That reality spurred Beal, then a photographer working on her MFA at Yale, to begin exploring the implications of life as a member of America's corporate workforce. Today, Beal lives in North Carolina, where she directs a gallery at Winston-Salem State University. We caught up with her over the phone to speak about her work, the significance of black hair, and how powerful art is.
Why was it important for you to make art that reflects the corporate world?
I was the only minority on my team, and there were very few minorities on the floor, so I found that I was feeling uncomfortable. Everyone was really nice, but I felt invisible. I had to ask myself, “How do you deal with discomfort?” The idea of feeling invisible, the idea of going to this space where you don't necessarily belong, or you feel like the other or an outsider—my thoughts were being consumed by the need to deal with this feeling of discomfort I was having in the place I was working every day.
When I've worked in similar corporate environments, I'd often find myself scared to change my hairstyle, just because all of a sudden you'd go from being an invisible person being hypervisible. Why do you think hair is such an important part of the conversation for black people?
You're always the elephant in the room. You're either a spectacle or you're not there at all. It’s one of those things—unlike for my white female counterparts, it’s something for me that I had to really think about, from my interviews to my day-to-day. My colleagues were very fascinated by my Afro, like overly fascinated. I found myself in this situation of discomfort, and knowing that if I straightened my hair, I was kind of appealing to a norm, to fit in that space. But if I wore my hair like how I normally like to wear it, it became a petting zoo.
It’s been about two years since the series, and the conversation is happening on platforms that are a bit larger. Have you noticed changes in the dialogue about black hair?
I would say, yeah. I felt like my work didn't necessarily answer questions, it more posed the questions—about having to change who you are to fit in and to gain opportunities, especially when opportunities are few and far between right now. If you think about all the things that are going on, with Rachel [Dolezal] and all these different things in the news as far as identity is concerned, I've had a lot of additional questions over the last year. This is work I did two years ago, but people are still reaching out to me to talk about it because it becomes relevant every day.
Last year there was a similar conversation about the military ban on natural hairstyles. What were your thoughts on that?
It goes back to what is considered the so-called norm: it’s based on a European standard of how women are supposed to wear their hair, and so the cornrows, the weaves or whatever styles the women did, were considered problematic. Those things that are considered normal in most cases aren’t those that include minorities, especially when it comes to our appearance. It's not black women who are at the foundation of this kind of decision-making, and you can tell.
How do you think art can mediate cross-cultural barriers?
When you make something, it brings you together. When I decided I was going to make that video with my male coworkers, afterwards there was a moment of discomfort because they were talking about something that was completely inappropriate in the corporate space, but in the same breath, it became positive. I talked to them about the discomfort of being a minority woman, of having to alter yourself or straighten your hair for interviews, or to be the elephant in the room or to feel ignored because you don’t “look” the part. At the end, we got closer to an answer than we were before.
Your current work deals with trying to acknowledge how minorities interact with art and have an impact in that space. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
The history of photography for minority women is still being written. There’s just not enough of us. So if we're writing that history right now, I had to ask myself, “How can I contribute to this dialogue?” And I found that within art, we don’t talk about corporate life. Even though there are black women who are making strides within corporate America, that conversation is just not being discussed. As an artist, it was more about, “How can I interject my thoughts into this conversation? How can I talk about something that I know many people—my own friends and family—are dealing with?” Sometimes art can feel like insider baseball, like if you're not in the game, you don't know what's going on. I wanted it so that you don't have to be an art historian to understand it. All you have to do is have a job, and you get it.
What do you hope to achieve?
There are limited stories, within art, of the minority experience, and as a minority artist, I just want to add to that dialogue, to add to that conversation. Marlene Dumas says that art is life, and so when Marlene Dumas says art is life, it means what we do on a daily basis, our everyday actions, should become the content for our work. As you live life, that's where the art is. So my life, it kind of sets the foundation for the work I'm making.