* feature photo is of Crochet Braided Halter Top, synthetic hair and metal, 28.5 x 71 x 38. 5 cm, 2020.
To say that artist Amanda Préval makes artworks is not entirely accurate. The term artwork brings to mind an object that is fixed, passive, and unchanging, as though it has been frozen in a gallery where it exists outside of time and space. Préval does the opposite. Their pieces are far more dynamic, revealing the hours, weeks, or months of labour that the artist poured into their creation, unveiling how the material even came to be in the first place, and never confining the art within one fixed meaning.
Sitting down in a bustling downtown cafe, I spoke with Préval about the subversion, both intentional and unintentional, that runs through their practice. I was intrigued by how their pieces not only reveal the making process, but turn the act of making into part of the work itself. Using hair braids as a medium, Préval sparks a discourse surrounding notions of identity and the complicated dynamics of modern-day production — a discourse in which the art is a constantly evolving voice.
Préval first used synthetic hair braids as an artistic medium in college, choosing them out of mere convenience. They then became more intrigued by braids, particularly how they have become distanced from their performative nature, moving ever closer to their role as aesthetic objects. They tell me how in their own experience, hair braiding has been a social activity. Recounting memories of sitting in a salon chair for five or seven hours while someone braids it by hand, they note how getting their hair done was always a social event, marked by conversations and personal connections. Buying them at the store, on the other hand, is an instant gesture that bypasses human connection.
They explore the divide between labour and consumerism further in their series “Exploration”, where Préval does precisely what the name suggests — explore the performativity of hair braiding, allowing the material to speak for itself as they let intuition be their guide. The result is a series of intricate, decorative swirls of braids that intertwine to create an abstract design. Préval recalls the first time they used braids in their work, how they were struck by the artisanal, repetitive qualities of the process. “Your mindset is in a different place in that moment, so I found that interesting, and I wanted to push it further, to really talk about that kind of state or process and what it produces,” they explain.
Braiding’s deep history and cultural importance for Africa and African diasporic communities gives the ritual even more significance. Cornrows, Préval notes, are far more than just a way of doing one’s hair. During slavery, the hairstyle was used to hide corn grains for runaways so that they could grow their own food and survive away from the plantation. “It is a symbol of emancipation,” explains Preval. “It's an affirmation of identity.”
Not one to see an object at surface level, Préval has a highly nuanced regard on hair extensions, explaining to me the multiple layers of meaning that they possess. Synthetic braids, though they carry important cultural meaning to the Black community, are often made in impoverished countries by low-paid workers. Cognizant of the irony in affirming identity with an object made by the exploitation of labour, Préval describes the dynamic as doubly oppressive. “I've only touched upon it symbolically, but my goal would be to really dive into and find the root of where these braids are being made,” they say, hoping to look more into the conditions under which extensions are being fabricated today.
It became apparent to me that for Préval, the materiality of a work matters just as much as its aesthetic. It matters because with any material, there was labour involved before it ever arrived at the artist’s studio, where additional labour will be applied before it is deemed “art”.
Due to the combination of highly symbolic materials and abstract subject matter, Préval’s pieces carry a certain ambiguity — and that’s how they prefer it. “I try to make it an open ended question where there's no wrong answers, depending on what your background is, who you are as a person [...] experiencing the pieces as you are,” they say. As part of their practice, they enjoy playing with objects, materials, or symbols that are both personal to them but also familiar in the broader culture, then subverting them and questioning their meaning.
One of their most recent works, Strange Fruit (2020), embodies this ambiguity. Made of poplar wood, synthetic hair and rope, the piece is an allusion to Billie Holiday’s haunting song of the same title. In a performance with the work, Préval hangs the artwork from the branch of a tree. As it sways slowly in the wind, the viewer is reminded of the history of violence against Black bodies. The object is twofold in its function, in that the noose-like rope is able to be readjusted such that the object can be carried like a bag, thus visualizing the intergenerational trauma that Black communities carry with them.
When doing the performance in a park, Préval was approached and asked questions about what they were doing. One woman, they recall, told them that the wooden form of Strange Fruit reassembled an urn — something that Préval neither intended nor considered until that point. Nevertheless, they were glad to hear another person’s input. They found it fascinating that the art object presented itself to this woman as a type of commemorative, memorial object, and how that interpretation enriches the artwork. Sitting with Préval in the cafe, I told them that to me, the shadow cast by the urn on the tree trunk resembles a human head. They smiled, fascinated by this comment that they hadn’t heard before, and by the fact people could look at the same object and see different things. “I value discourses about art and exchange because it's part of my work,” says Préval of this kind of interaction. “I feel like ideas express themselves better if they’re discussed.”
Their art is in a sense a living object. Rather than being a static form, frozen in time and bound by inflexible purpose, Préval attends to every aspect of art-making. From the fabrication of the medium, to the manipulation of material, to its constantly shifting and evolving meaning, Préval shows us what art can be when we let it speak for itself.