Artist Kione Grandison explores hair as a cultural signifier; a means of “self-expression and identity amongst Black communities”
“I think it’s so important for diasporic youth to understand and have the knowledge of just how much power their hair holds,” the west London-based mixed media artist tells us.
- Ruby Boddington
- 11 June 2020
It was during her BA that fine artist and nail artist Kione Grandison first started delving into the subject of hair with academic depth, exploring all facets of it for her dissertation. “My hair has always been a defining element of my own identity, and has always seemed to be the main cause of interest for anyone that meets me – so I decided that it was something that I wanted to unravel further and understand more about for myself,” she tells It’s Nice That. With work that manifests in myriad ways including painting, collage and mixed media, Kione explores notions of “identity, culture and race as a way of understanding my own place within the world and society.” The result is a portfolio full of beautifully intricate and conceptually absorbing works.
On why she first became interested in hair, specifically within the African and Caribbean diasporic communities, as an area of thematic investigation, one which she still focusses on today Kione explains: “Studying its many parts in depth for my dissertation, I began to understand that hair, specifically within African and Caribbean diasporic communities is a cultural signifier that holds such a complex and political power and history. Hair is an extremely important tool for self-expression and identity amongst Black communities. African hairstyling is an art form in itself. I think it’s so important for diasporic youth to understand and have the knowledge of just how much power their hair holds. That can’t ever be taken away – times are tough and Western ideals of beauty have swayed our collective consciousness, but I can see real change happening in the fact that diasporic youth are reclaiming their power.”
Through such a thorough investigation into these topics, Kione’s work has become “naturally focused on the Black beauty industry and the significance of hair within it,” with her explaining that “through my work I hope to educate those who aren’t aware of this complex history, and empower those within Black communities that are.”
When asked about when she first became interested in art, Kione remarks that she can’t think of a time when she wasn’t painting or drawing. “It’s always been a big part of my life, I don’t really know where the interest came from as I don’t remember being introduced to it by anyone, so I guess it was a very intuitive obsession,” she says. This interest was then nurtured by her parents – her mum was a head fashion buyer and now has her own brand, and her dad is a graphic and furniture designer – who never discouraged her from pursuing creativity as a career. What’s more, as a shy child whose home life wasn’t the smoothest (“My parents split when I was young, so I have no memory of them together but am lucky to have been raised by them both,” she explains), looking back now, art was Kione’s outlet.
A facet of Kione’s portfolio which particularly intrigued us was the adept way in which she flits between media, using multiple forms of expression but still producing work which feels unified. Having studied fine art, photography, textiles and history of art at college, she chose the fine art route at Wimbledon College of Arts after toying with the idea of textiles. Recently, however, textiles has been reintroduced into her practice, she explains: “As a painter you are always looking back to art that came before, for inspiration and knowledge. So art history is a natural influence, and I’ve done my own research into African art to gain a deeper knowledge that I wasn’t taught at college.”
Collage plays a significant role in Kione’s practice today but it’s a medium she discovered almost by accident during her degree. “The first collage I made took me half an hour and was a result of wanting to capture an idea quickly,” she says. “When I showed it to my tutor, alongside some detailed oil paintings I’d been working on for weeks, he was much more interested in the rudimentary quality of my collage and encouraged me to do more, which really got the ball rolling.” That moment became a catalyst for Kione understanding she didn’t need to always show her painting skill, allowing her to become more ideas based and embrace the simplicity of collage. On what she loves about the medium, she explains: “It doesn’t allow you to think too much while making, it feels a bit less precious but the outcome can sometimes be even more so. I think collage has allowed me to really release my ideas, whereas for me, painting sometimes requires too much of a thought process before I even begin a piece.”
While she works in several media, that’s not to say Kione’s portfolio isn’t distinctive as across her works a graphic and figurative visual language pervades. It’s “hair focused and takes influence from African history,” she says, adding, “everything about it definitely represents me as a person.”
When it comes to commissions, she loves “working on anything that is representative of my culture that I can relate to in some way,” which has in the past has led her to work in the music and fashion industries as well. One such recent project saw her paint a single cover for Vybz Kartel and Afro B. “They had seen some dancehall paintings I did in 2015 on a bar in Port Antonio, Jamaica and wanted something in a similar style,” she recalls. “It was quite a surreal commission to get because Vybz Kartel is a very big deal in Jamaica – one of, if not the top dancehall artist of the moment.” Kione, therefore, took inspiration from Jamaican street art in the pop colours she used, as well as west African barbershop imagery for the composition. Its text then directly referenced dancehall posters seen all over the streets of Jamaica.
Whether working on personal or commercial work though, what is clear is that Kione has an ability to imbue her works with well-informed references and multiplicities. They are intricate – not just in their visual language but in their meaning, allowing each piece to be a true work of self-expression, something she succinctly sums up when saying “some people say my work gives them ‘hair inspiration’ – and I’m truly happy to be of service in that way, but I also hope that people look a bit deeper and question what the work is trying to communicate as there is a lot more to it.”
Camo Heads (Black n White). Acrylic painting on paper, 2020
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.