Aaron Mervin’s vibrant portraits come alive against an ebony backdrop. His models are young and ... not as young. They’re not beauty queens, though their beauty is enough to take one’s breath away. His work is a celebration of hair, yet to say his art show is merely about hair would be to miss the point.
His photographic exhibition, Natural Nywele: A Celebration of Natural Hair, challenges public perception of beauty and confronts stereotypes. The work invites people of all backgrounds to love and accept themselves—and their neighbors—for who they are.
Nywele is the Swahili term for hair and, according to Mervin, natural hair is so much more than a fashion statement: It’s a powerful expression of culture, self and age-old African traditions.
“A lot of Africans were brought here from the Ivory Coast, the west coast of Africa, and one of the languages that our native people spoke was Swahili,” Mervin explained. “I wanted to tie that natural language of ours with hair.”
In Africa, the way a person wears their hair tells a story, revealing class, marital status and more. It might even be able to tell us more than our names can.
“Our last names are not our names,” the artist said. “If we go back 200 years, it stops. Our names were most likely a slave master’s name. When we got here, we lost everything: our names, our culture, our foods and, not long after, our traditional hair.”
A Jacksonville native, Mervin graduated from Terry Parker High School and lives in Jacksonville’s Northside with his wife, a Duval County Public School teacher. The couple has three kids and seven grandchildren. Mervin runs Head Shot Studios and has been a professional photographer for several decades. He began working on Natural Nywele in the fall of 2017. The enthusiastic community response pleases him.
When he began recruiting models, Mervin’s requirements were straightforward. They needed to have natural hair: no chemicals, perms, relaxers, hair extensions or weaves.
“It’s not that I have a problem with weave or anything like that, but I think too many girls feel they need it to be beautiful,” Mervin said. “And that’s a problem for me. If you wear extensions because you’ve got four kids, a full-time job, you’re involved with the church, you’re in these four other clubs and you just don’t have time to do your hair, I get that. But if you wear it because, ‘My real hair’s too short, my real hair’s too nappy, people don’t like natural hair, long hair is beautiful,’ if you’re doing it for those types of things, that for me is a problem. So I wanted to do a project that celebrated our natural hair. I wanted African-Americans—guys and girls—to see natural hair, to see the varieties in styles, varieties in color, just the diversity that can be there. I wanted to show the whole African-American community. This is our hair. This is how it grows out of our head. Let’s have some pride. Look how beautiful we can be. Look how diverse it can be, look what kinds of styles we can do. Just look at us!”
Mervin also hopes to raise understanding, appreciation and acceptance of natural styles outside the black community.
“I think a lot of the racial prejudices and climate have been heightened because of the president, and I think that’s unfortunate,” he explained. “And what I think is, a lot of non-African America doesn’t understand us or our hair. Just because one of our girls, one of our guys comes into their job, their workplace, their business with a style of hair they aren’t used to seeing, it doesn’t make them a thug. It doesn’t make them a rapper. It doesn’t make them a bad kid. None of those things they may be worried about are true. There’s some prejudice because people don’t know.”
He hopes experiencing each piece up close and personal will diminish the mystery and misunderstanding.
“This project is an opportunity where non-African-American people can come in and see our hair as art,” Mervin says. “On the street, you can’t just walk up to a guy with dreads and stare at his hair. ‘Look at that guy over there! He’s got really nice texture. I think I’ll just walk up and check it out.’ You can’t really do that, you know. What my hope is, after seeing this show, when you get to work tomorrow and your co-worker comes in and her hair is a totally different style than what you think is maybe a ‘normal’ style, you look at it totally different. Maybe you’re less intimidated. Maybe you appreciate the beauty of the hair and the difference more because you’ve had the chance to see it in an art exhibit. You’ve had a chance to really look at it and think about it. When you see it out in public, I think your perception is going to be different. My hope would be that seeing this exhibit would open our eyes to the beauty and diversity of each of us.”
The photographic portraits on display are accompanied by narrative plaques. Each local model has a different story to tell about going natural. They’re passionate and bursting with personality.
Marquetta is elegant, standing in profile with hands raised as her beautiful long ponytail cascades from the back of her otherwise shaved head. Dramatic and proud, her look is mesmerizing. Her testimonial reads:
Journey—Assimilation to Acceptance
From Miss Irving’s kitchen … hot combs, sounds of sizzling, smell of burnt hair, sometimes skin.
‘Hold still, girl!’ … I wanna be pretty but only straight hair will do … I don’t feel pretty and I still don’t fit in.
The ‘Revolution’ gifted change of mind, body … Spirit of acceptance … of me, beauty boundless and undefined.
I affirm that God did not create me to assimilate!”
Gloria is stunning. Her white-gray hair encircles her head like a halo and her warm eyes sparkle with wisdom. Gloria is Mervin’s mother and his biggest supporter. She writes:
I am a 74-year-old, married, retired nurse. I have been wearing my hair natural for five years. I stopped getting tint in my hair 10 years ago, trying to hide the grey, when I noticed that just was not working. My gray kept creeping through even when the tint was less than a week old. I said, ‘Oh no! I can’t keep doing this.’ My gray was turning green and yellow, I even saw red. That gray was stubborn and did not take the tint well. There is a verse in the Bible found in Psalms 71:18, that let me know as I got older my hair would turn gray, that within itself makes me proud of my hair, and proud to be a senior citizen. I am so proud of my hair I wouldn’t change it for all the tea in China! I get so many lovely compliments on my hair and style wherever I go. Some people, as they begin to gray, think it makes them look older, but I say beauty is as beauty does. I love my hair and I love me!”
Aaron Mervin’s photography celebrates women brave enough to reject cultural beauty standards and embrace themselves in their entirety—culture, faith, family, ancestry, age and more. It’s a message he believes the country needs to hear. This is not an art show about fashion. This is not an exhibition exclusively celebrating the beauty of black women or the African-American experience. It’s applicable to everyone who has felt pressured to conform to someone else’s standards. Mervin believes we’re at a tipping point.
“A lot of African-American women are starting to define differently what they feel is beautiful and that’s why I think this particular exhibit is so powerful,” Mervin says. “A lot of girls are starting to go natural. What I’m hearing from a lot of girls is that they want to be proud of who they are as they are. They don’t want to have to relax their hair or perm their hair and do all those things that society said would make their hair beautiful by having it long and straight. So I think what’s happening is that African-American women are embracing their natural hair more and they’re reshaping what beauty is for us and the rest of the world is looking.”
Natural Nywele is on display through February, culminating with an evening fashion show event in which the entire gallery and lobby will serve as a runway.