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Photo credit: Stephanie Germano

Ottawa Art Gallery presents Stéphane Alexis: Chains & Crowns

By Shireen Agharazi-Dormani on August 6, 2021

Stéphane Alexis is an artist based in Ottawa. His work stems from his personal experiences: the demographics and sub demographics to which he belongs, namely within the Black community. The exploration of masculinity, and a multi-faceted understanding of healthcare. For each project, a large amount of research is conducted using both lived experiences and external sources to guide project direction. His photo-based work combines both conceptual research-driven design with aesthetic quality,” reads the Ottawa Art Gallery (AOG)’s artist biography.

OAG’s Galerie Annexe presents the photo exhibition Stéphane Alexis: Chains & Crowns, until Sept. 12, 2021. The photographs feature different hairstyles of African descent, with each one lit, framed and presented with extensively researched information, including the hairstyle’s history as well as its significance.

Stéphane Alexis, Box Braids no. 1 (Photo provided by Ottawa Art Gallery)

When Internet searches did not give him all the information he needed, Alexis decided to look around him to fill in what was missing. Parts of Black history he was once unfamiliar with came to him through conversations with family members and friends. The artist dedicates this body of work to his mother, who is a source of inspiration for this project.

“It seemed that our ancestral culture had been buried away to the point that history had been erased, a lost identity,” says Alexis in his artist statement. “For example, if you Google search ‘French Braids,’ you will most likely find that a majority of the image results are white women.”

The artist goes on to explain how his issue with this knowledge is the lack of cultural acknowledgement from society. “Understanding this information is necessary due to our ignorance of said truth as a global culture,” he says.

Stéphane Alexis, Rows no. 2 (Photo provided by Ottawa Art Gallery)

“Acknowledgement [sic] helps to keep a culture alive,” says Alexis, adding that doing so, in turn, allows customs that supported Black communities to endure.

Alexis’ research and conversations resulted in an exhibition featuring portraits of hairstyles. The artist provides text alongside these works to contextualize braids, twists, rows and cuts. Included are the styles’ origins, techniques, historical and pop culture information. In one such explanation, the artist describes the “Frohawk” as a combination of the mohawk and the afro. The style is used to distinguish the warriors of the Mandinka tribe of Western Africa. Alexis shows that public figures like Mr. T and Usher popularized this look in Western culture, varying the style by braiding the hair or shaving the sides of the scalp.

Stéphane Alexis, Twist Out no.1 (Photo provided by Ottawa Art Gallery)

“Myself, as well as many others, are still learning about the crowns on our heads and how to care for them,” says Alexis. “So, as we’ve journeyed through this project together, I hope that not only black people but all people will begin to understand the gravity that comes from ‘black hair,’ learning how to love others and ourselves through our locs.”

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Stéphane Alexis: Chains & Crowns will run until Sept. 12, 2021, at Galerie Annexe, 10 Daly Avenue.

Starting July 21, Gallery hours are Wednesday to Sunday, 10 am to 6 pm. Ottawa Art Gallery is always free, but everyone is asked to pre-book visits either online or by phone. Measures are in place to keep everyone both healthy and safe.