“I don’t actually care about painting people’s nails,” Sarah Beth Woods confesses. “I love making these little nail tips and adorning them. I love the material and the kind of bricolage aspect of it. But I really love what happens when you put it out in the world for people to interact with. I think so much can happen when there are other people putting them on and sharing their stories.”
Woods’ artistic practice bridges the fine-art world with the beauty shop. She creates elaborate, exaggerated braided headdresses and press-on nail tips, often bringing them into fine-art contexts to adorn visitors. Neon-pink nail tips are decorated with oversized gold dollar signs. Red and blue shower poufs have been deconstructed and then woven into intricate hair weaves. Her ghetto-fabulous aesthetic looks straight out of a Nicki Minaj music video, yet her personal appearance is surprisingly neat and conservative. She keeps her hair and nails short, her friendly smile decorated only with clear lip gloss.
Last month, Woods opened her exhibition “Bricoleur” with an event she described as a “collaborative, interactive fiber installation and hair braiding experience” at Azimuth Projects, an apartment gallery in Logan Square with hair braider Fatimata Traore. Visitors took turns having their hair braided and then “accented” with shiny door-knocker earrings and colorful tassels. Woods’ sculptural works comprised of hairpieces and jewelry remain on display in the space.
“There is this subversive quality to it,” Woods explains, “because back in the day women were able to get together that way and talk about politics and talk about all this stuff that they weren’t really supposed to be talking about, that socially were frowned upon.”
Woods’ work speaks a lot about gender, race and class. As a white woman who uses African-American motifs and stylistic influences, she is very interested in the distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. She admits the dubiousness therein, but encourages the open exchange of ideas and opinions on the subject at her events.
“It kind of counteracts the experience that someone would have going to a museum with a painting, where it’s like a one-sided dialogue,” Woods adds. “I think there’s power in being able to interact with another human being. You can talk about a color of nail polish or you can have a deep theoretical conversation about surface and detail and the feminine and privilege, labor, class. Outrageous hair and nails like these challenge the notion that you have to look a certain way—respectability politics. Like wearing an Afro to the office, you’d be asked to tone it down. I like asserting yourself against that.
“In my work I argue that the means of decorating and adornment have been and continue to be ways for women to assert their autonomy and individuality in public and private spaces.” Woods works in contrast to a chromophobic dominant culture that associates minimal whiteness with taste and purity. “My work is the counterpoint to these beliefs, a way to elevate color, detail and excess as content that deserves attention in and of itself but also for its cultural associations.” (Kelly Reaves)
Sarah Beth Woods’ work is exhibited at Azimuth Projects through October 26, with a closing reception and artist talk that day starting at 12:30pm.