THE WAX AND GOLD OF HAIRSTYLES IN ETHIOPIA
The phrase ሰምና ወርቅ (sam-enna warq), or wax and gold, is a fundamental concept in Amharic. Taken literally, it refers to the goldsmith’s technique of casting pieces by making a clay mould around a wax model, draining the wax and then pouring the molten gold into the mould. However, in Amharic poetry, the phrase has come to signify the hidden, often spiritual, meaning (the gold) beneath the apparent meaning (the wax) of the language. Once the ሰም (sam) is removed, the ወርቅ (warq) can be appreciated.
Hair, more easily changed and shaped than other bodily features, has always been used for its aesthetic appeal and imbued with symbolic meaning. It is both wax and gold. As a natural biological signifier, hair is the wax or ሰም (sam), while its braiding or styling, with its cultural representation in the community and its artistic expression, make it the gold or ወርቅ (warq).
The Wax and Gold of Hairstyle in Ethiopia assembles photographs from the collections of the Frobenius Institute and sketches made by a young Ethiopian artist to illustrate a broad spectrum of hairstyles and explore an important and under-theorised topic. The images presented here were selected not for their photographic composition or artistic qualities, but for their content and the information they convey on the subject of hairstyle. Still, the concept of hair in Ethiopia is broad, and the archives of the institute on hair and its related social aspects are wide. The execution of this exhibition might not be enough. But I hope and expect that it will open up a dialogue on the significance of hairstyle and on how we preserve the information and knowledge contained in the photographs and films held by archives such as that of the Frobenius Institute.