Yvette Smalls

Yvette Smalls


(March 9, 1959 - April 16, 2012)

Master braider, hair sculptor, and filmmaker, Yvette Smalls says, "Hair is my artistic medium and became my mission." She began braiding, dressing and sculpting African American women's hair in the late 1970s, to put herself through school. She was part of a movement of African American women rejecting definitions of "bad" and "good" hair based on European standards, and reclaiming African traditions of beauty. Her mother always told her, "Beauty is as beauty does," and the saying innoculated Yvette against some of the negative self-image she saw in others (from ages nine to ninety, she says) and set her on a journey of self-discovery. She went on to school herself in intricate and varied hair braiding, wrapping, coiling and weaving traditions used in her own extended family across the American South, and across the African Diaspora, from Egypt to South Africa, Senegal to Kenya as an important form of creative expression representing both the individuality and social status or role of the wearer. In her own work, she drew on a wide range of styles and techniques, approaching each person's hair as the ultimate wearable art. In 1998, she completed a documentary "Hair Stories", broadcast on WYBE-TV and screened in festivals internationally. She has been a featured artist at ODUNDE and appeared at hundreds of schools and community events annually.

She says, "Some of the techniques I employ are over ten thousand years old. They include cornrow/braids, plaits/individuals, fishweave/sosom, casamas, Bahamas, goddess braids, Senegalese twists, dufil, Nubian locs, Zulu knots, krimps, spiral curl, micros, s-plaits, coils, palm rolls, corkscrew, and the basket-weave. The fine art of hair-sculpting intrigues me. I am both a sculptor and a guide on quests of self-discovery. Spirit intuitively moves within me to create/sculpt hairstyles. I select materials that enhance the wearer such as raffia, all kinds of beads, shells, rubber, yarn, ribbon, human hair, kanekalon 'hair', feathers, gold and silver twine, thread, hemp, recycled jewelry, and found objects. I am obsessed with promoting the cultural, historical, and technical knowledge of African hair. I weave tradition, creativity and love into my tapestry of natural hairstyles; especially since generations of Black women have been taught to wage war on their coil. I give praise to those hair braiders who toiled, created, invented and experimented with techniques, fibers, paper bags, stockings, creams, oils and other concoctions to beautify the physical presence and soothe the spiritual sense of the African woman. I employ African techniques with American inventiveness. My hairstyles are always on the edge of avant-garde with an acknowledgement of the roots of my culture. I love to 'dress' hair with all kinds of complex techniques as well as to explore creative and artistic aspects of natural hair. In my sanctuary we have a spiritual experience that's difficult to explain; you come in looking one way and you leave another way." 

Yvette was featured in Philadelphia Folklore Project exhibitions (Folk Arts of Social Change, All That We Do) and was part of the Folklore Project's salon series on local folk arts, as well as a PFP board member. This March (2012), PFP screened her documentary, Hair Stories, and presented her with an award of appreciation, honoring her years of vanguard work in folk arts and social change. The next issue of PFP's magazine (in press) will feature an interview with her. It has been a privilege and joy to know Yvette; her loss is deeply felt, and her memory is a blessing. 

Photograph: James Wasserman 2006.