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Arts & Culture

Black Enterprise, Tradition And Culture At The Bronner Bros. Hair Show

<em>Cruella</em>
<em>Cruella</em>

Photographer Rahim Fortune focuses his work on sacred spaces that are often thought of as cultural celebrations.

One of those spaces is the Bronner Bros. International Beauty Show, a twice-yearly show where contestants from all over come to showcase their skills when it comes to styling Black hair.

In normal years the show brings 30,000 attendees to Atlanta.

<em>Back to back</em>
/ Rahim Fortune
<em>Back to back</em>

Fortune, who alternates his time between Texas and New York, traveled to Atlanta to experience the show in February 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic upended normal life.

The show's theme that year was "fantasy."

For Fortune, there were initially two layers of tradition surrounding the photography project: the photographic tradition of capturing Black spaces, as well as the cultural and hair tradition involved.

<em>Women with pin curls</em>
/ Rahim Fortune
<em>Women with pin curls</em>

In many ways, hair shows like the Bronner Bros. International Beauty Show reveal what it's like to be a part of Black culture. They let young people feel invited into Black spaces.

<em>Fire and saint</em>
/ Rahim Fortune
<em>Fire and saint</em>

Once Fortune arrived in Atlanta, however, his focus was steered in another direction.

"What I found that really resonated with me was the sense of Black entrepreneurship in the space," he says. "There was an element of economic empowerment that also exists in the ways the show functions."

A large part of the hair show involves teaching young people the skills necessary to be successful in the hair industry. Experts in the beauty industry teach about hair care, barbering, skin care and makeup, but also the business side: financial literacy, marketing and salon operations.

Fortune took in the "beautiful visuals" of the models and hair, but was also able to appreciate "that special space you can go into, [where] those tools are made available along with expression of art."

The hair show is also, of course, a show and a competition. Artists compete in barbering by cutting special designs into the hair of models. For male and female weave installation categories, contestants install different braided and sewn-in hairstyles.

<em>Preparation for beauty contest</em>
/ Rahim Fortune
<em>Preparation for beauty contest</em>

"One thing I really was interested in was that some of the contestants there are just the muses for the artists that are dressing them up," Fortune says.

"In some of the dynamics I noticed that the contestants were maybe more shy. But they were doing this extravagant show and very, very outward-facing spectacle performance for a friend."

<em>Women with white hair</em>
/ Rahim Fortune
<em>Women with white hair</em>
<em>Carousel</em>
/ Rahim Fortune
<em>Carousel</em>

"The photograph where the woman has the carousel, in that photograph she was standing there very shy and timid," Fortune says. "She's doing it for her friend. She wouldn't by herself want to be in this highly visible space. Right before I took the photo her friend yelled out, 'Girl you better smile!' and she let out this little timid smile. It really showed the humanity in the space."

The Bronner Bros. hair show went virtual in September 2020, but is scheduled to return in person in August, when it will celebrate its 75th year.

Di'Amond Moore is an NPR photo editing intern. Follow her on Instagram atdiiiamondd_.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.