Hair and Identity: Artist Émilie Régnier reveals two universes that exist within her body

In her How do you love me? installation at the Capture Photography Festival, she shines a light on race and beauty standards

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      Haitian-Canadian photography artist Émilie Régnier noticed something very familiar when her younger sister turned 15.

      The teenager was dating her first boyfriend and began straightening her curly hair far more than usual.

      “It became more and more straight,” Régnier told the Georgia Straight by phone from her home in Montreal. “And that actually threw me back to my own experience—a bit younger, I was 14—when I had my first boyfriend.”

      At that time, Régnier decided to ditch her Afro and go to school with straight hair. That totally changed how she was perceived by her friends. So it really struck her when her sister, 18 years her junior, was doing exactly the same thing.

      This gave birth to Régnier’s art project, How do you love me?, which features 13 black-and-white self-portraits, including one with her mother.

      These images show Régnier with both straight and curly hair, each augmented by text exploring Régnier’s feelings about standards of beauty and race, as well as how others responded to her with different hairstyles.

      As a teenager, she felt that it was a compliment if she was told she looked like she was Spanish or Indian with straight hair, whereas she felt ashamed by her natural hair. She also mentions in one panel that she carries within herself the world of the oppressor and the oppressed.

      “Through this project, I invite the viewers to witness this confrontation within the periphery of my body and the body of two family members,” she writes. “I used my hair as the principal denominator.”

      Images from How do you love me? will be presented for the first time in public at this year’s Capture Photography Festival, which begins in Metro Vancouver on Friday (April 2). And this very personal series of photographs, along with the text, will have a large audience because they will be exhibited at the Stadium-Chinatown SkyTrain station, thanks to the festival’s partnership with TransLink.

      How do you love me? is curated by Emmy Lee Wall, executive director of the Capture festival.

      “It’s quite affecting,” Wall told the Straight by phone. “It talks about how deeply a simple gesture such as straightening her hair can affect the way that everybody around her treats her and sees her—just the way she even thinks of herself.”

      Régnier, 37, said that these pictures and words have really resonated with younger multiracial students who have seen them online.

      She emphasized that she does not want this show to be perceived as her dictating to anyone how they should look. Rather, she’s hoping that by expressing her experiences, she might put into words what others may be feeling.

      “I’m not there to give any lessons to anyone,” Régnier declared.

      Her previous works have been featured in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Vogue, and Le Magazine du Monde, among other publications. She has also held exhibitions in North America, Europe, and Africa.

      The text that appears alongside images like this in How do you love me? raise important questions about race and beauty standards.

      Perspectives differ depending on location

      Régnier spent much of her childhood in Gabon because her mother worked in international aid. Régnier also lived in Senegal off and on for almost 12 years, working in that country as a photojournalist.

      There, she was told that she was “blond” or “white”, whereas in North America she is perceived to be not white.

      “I think this work is borne out of a form of pain—or scream—that I had to repress for too long,” Régnier said.

      Her African experiences are reflected in several of her previous works, including Leopard, which highlighted leopard prints in African and western fashion. Another project, La Bella de Luanda, showcased colourfully dressed women in the Angolan capital.

      Régnier was 18 years old when she met her father for the first time. So aside from living in Africa as a child, she never had any contact with this aspect of her heritage as she was growing up.

      She noted that her father’s family from Haiti is “highly mixed”. One of her great-grandmothers was blond and blue-eyed, whereas one of her great-grandfathers was very fair-skinned.

      “When I got to Haiti for the first time in my life, I realized that most of my patrilineal family were actually more white than I was,” Régnier said.

      This led to the realization that, genetically, her ancestry was likely less than 50 percent African.

      “According to a DNA test I did in 2017, I am 75 percent of European heritage,” she wrote on a panel in How do you love me?. “Growing up, I remembered, I used to love Canadian winter, because I could wear a snowsuit and no one would see the 25% of me that isn’t of European heritage.”

      Back when she was a teenager, she said, before the advent of social media, there was a “very homogeneous narrative” of attractiveness presented through the media. Régnier thinks that since then, Instagram has helped expose people to more diverse perspectives.

      “My discomfort was also due to what were the main beauty standards of my time—and how I felt I couldn’t fit or meet them until I got my hair straight. And then suddenly I felt so much lighter,” she recalled.

      Video: Émilie Régnier speaks about identity and the relationship between Africa and the West through her Leopard series.

      DNA among her current fascinations

      Nowadays, Régnier very rarely wears her hair straight. And when she does, she wonders if she’s doing it for herself or if she’s doing it for someone she would like to look at her.

      She created the self-portraits while living in Paris. And she believes that the anonymity of not being in her hometown of Montreal gave her more freedom to really examine and expose herself in ways that might not have been possible were she in closer proximity to friends and family.

      One of her newest projects continues her fascination with genealogy.

      Régnier received a 2020 Naional Geographic Explorer grant, which is helping her reach out to people who share a segment of her DNA.

      Her test showed that she has relatives in Nigeria, the United Kingdom, Hawaii, and even Vancouver.

      “So far, I have over 100 people who are willing to participate in my project and meet in person,” Régnier said. “And I have another project where I record people’s heartbeats all around the world. I’ve worked in six countries and recorded 120 strangers’ heartbeats.”

      There are photographic aspects involved in both these projects, which have been put on hold due to the pandemic.

      She pointed out that the first thing people notice about another human being is their physical appearance, including their skin colour. And she suggest that because human brains are lazy, they quickly draw conclusions about this person’s social, economic, cultural, and religious background based on their appearance.

      “It’s like we look at the point of the iceberg,” Régnier said. “We never go back and look deeper into one another. So that’s where I see I’m going.”

      Georgia Straight editor Charlie Smith previews the Capture Photography Festival in a video edited by Lucas Renzo Giovannetti.
      Lucas Renzo Giovannetti