To an extent, the images of women of color in the groundbreaking exhibit “Adornment” share similarities with the Native American portraiture of the early 1900s. The subjects wear earnest expressions, traditional and modern dress, their hair in intricate braided styles adorned with gold jewelry. Only, the accessories they don — the large bamboo earrings known as “door knockers” — reflect a street aesthetic rather than one directly related to the women’s ancestry. And Amanda Lopez and Tanya Melendez, the artists behind the exhibit, did not view their subjects through a white male gaze. They are Latinas who captured the images not only to spotlight the beauty and dignity of brown and black women but also to empower them in a society that relegates them to the fringes.
Exhibited in galleries in Los Angeles and Sacramento earlier this year and included in the Museum of Modern Art’s current “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” show, “Adornment” has resonated with communities of color, according to Melendez. The Puerto Rican hairstylist, jewelry and clothing maker from Highland Park said the exhibit represents the culmination of the art forms she’s studied and used as inspiration. Melendez, creator of the jewelry line NenaSoulFly, has made custom jewelry for celebrities such as Erykah Badu and done styling for the fashion brand KENZO, among others.
“With the idea of adornment, I was wondering how I could start representing people of color using modern, every day jewelry pieces that speak particularly to black and brown women,” Melendez said. She also wanted to show how the tradition of hair braiding links Latinas and African American women together. Using jewelry to accent the braided hairdos, some of which are modeled on indigenous styles, gives the photo subjects the bearing of royalty.
Initially, Melendez practiced braiding the hair of a young pair of sisters she knew who had particularly long tresses. She then reached out to other women but needed a professional photographer to capture them in their adornments. Enter Amanda Lopez, a freelance photographer who has shot celebrities such as Snoop Dogg and actress Kate del Castillo. Lopez and Melendez met each other nearly a decade ago and both shared a desire to highlight women of color in their art.
“I love Tanya’s work,” Lopez said. “She’s so creative; she’s so cutting edge. I was blown away by her adornment work—the connection between the past, present and future. That all really spoke to me. So, I said, ‘Let’s shoot it. Let’s do it right.’”
The duo styled and photographed eight women and showcased the project at galleries in L.A.’s Chinatown and Sacramento, Lopez’s hometown. The response to the photo series has overwhelmed them. It has even inspired knockoffs, albeit unapproved ones. Karrueche Tran, a star of the TNT show “Claws,” appeared this summer with her hair adorned with bamboo earrings in the signature way that Melendez styled her subjects for “Adornment.”
Lopez said that people who’ve seen the exhibit in person have wept while taking in photos of women who share their hair, skin color and facial features. She recalled how one little girl told her mother that she knew one of the women featured in the exhibit. She actually didn’t; the girl just figured she did because she was so unaccustomed to seeing representations of brown women in art.
“It was a really beautiful experience to work on the photos,” Lopez said. “It was really amazing that it was so well-received. I was really drawn to this alternative narrative [of women of color] you don’t often see. We really wanted to honor them and show the beauty and uniqueness of the women.”
Melendez said women found it affirming to see the bamboo earrings that are staples in communities of color—LL Cool J shouts them out in 1990’s “Around the Way Girl”—reframed as a regal accessory of sorts.
“They grew up wearing bamboo earrings,” Melendez said. “They’re part of our culture and who we are as a people. They’re reclaiming that strength, affirming that they are beautiful, that they are queens.”
Melendez described bamboo earrings, nameplate jewelry and gold chains as armor, likening them to the sacred charms and protective amulets with which indigenous peoples adorn themselves. She said brown and black people wear the jewelry, for which they often sacrifice to pay, proudly in a society that devalues and excludes them.
“But we value each other and see each other’s light and worth,” Melendez added. Adornment “is a way to say, ‘This is who I am, and you’re going to see me. This is our lineage, and we are brown and dark, and we have Native features. We come from royalty, from these rich cultures and a rich history.’”
Estella Sanchez, executive director of the Sacramento cultural arts center Sol Collective, said it was important for community members to see the photo series, which includes 22 images. “Adornment” arrived there in July.
“I really wanted to bring the exhibit to Sol Collective,” Sanchez said. “We felt that it was needed. It was really a powerful conversation. One of the things that we noticed is that many of the women who came to see it had their hair done with different jewelry. They showcased their own beauty, so that was really powerful.”
A then-pregnant Sanchez was one of the models photographed for the exhibit. She called it healing to be adorned and honored by other women.
“It did so much to uplift my spirits and my energy,” she said. “It was very much of a ceremony. It’s just a testament to their work that art can be powerful.”
Other women photographed for “Adornment” also felt moved by the experience. Singer-songwriter Catherine Harris-White, known by the stage name SassyBlack, is a friend of Melendez and appreciated the chance to take part in a project that celebrates women of color. She appears with a sculpted Afro adorned with a decorative hair pick. Gold ribbon is woven into the single braid at the nape of her neck.
“I thought it was amazing,” she said of the project. “I thought it was really cool to see all the cultures who had adornment in their hair and how we’re all connected to it. Just bringing all these different communities together—I was excited to be part of that.”
NoAmy Henriquez, a DJ who grew up in a black and Latino community in South Los Angeles, at first felt compelled to participate in the project because she enjoys fashion, jewelry and makeup. But the project took on deeper meaning when she recalled feeling ashamed of her indigenous features as a child.
“There’s so much anti-indigenous and anti-blackness within our communities because of white colonization,” she said. But for “Adornment” she had her hair braided in a style that had Mayan roots.
“I’ve never experienced anything like that,” she said. “For me it was really empowering. It really affirmed that I’m beautiful, I’m important and I matter.”
In recent years, door knocker earrings and nameplate necklaces have enjoyed a revival in mainstream popular culture, with everyone from Tracee Ellis Ross and Jennifer Lopez to Hilary Duff and Khloe Kardashian sporting the look. It bothers Henriquez that white women who wear the jewelry are perceived differently from women of color who do.
“I’ve noticed white women who are appropriating these styles, and it’s really messed up that when women of color wear them, we’re considered ghetto,” she said. “We can even be criminalized for wearing our hair in cornrows, but when white women wear cornrows, it’s fashion. It’s edgy. At the end of the day, they can wear these things and go ask for a [job] promotion.”
Melendez recognizes how people of color have fought to wear their hair in traditional or ethnic hairstyles in the workplace, the military and schools. She says “Adornment” pushes back at these messages.
“Even though the world tells you can’t wear your hair in certain ways, just knowing your heritage and your culture is empowering,” she said. “As far as the rest of the world—the fashion industry and the culture vultures, we’re reminding them where it comes from. We’re telling them, ‘You’re not introducing anything new. We know you’re taking from us and trying to sell and steal.’ This is a reclaiming of our power and grace and beauty.”