Photojournalist Oriane Zerah’s exhibition of photographs on hair has inspirations ranging from society to mythology

French artist and photojournalist Oriane Zerah claims to be a traveller first and then an artist. Her art is born out of her travels, her inspiration from a desire to share what she sees. Living in Kabul “by choice” for the past two years, this intrepid young artist is holding an exhibition of her photographs, ‘Something About Hair’, at David Hall. that will run till February 25.

There are three sides to the show that is about the long tresses of Indian women. To begin with is Oriane’s personal association with hair, followed by her experiences with hair during her travels and lastly her symbolic interpretation of hair in a social and cultural context.

As a child she remembers being taken by her mother to the salon along with her sister and being given a drastic hair cut. “It is difficult to maintain long hair for children,” reasons Oriane, who ties her slightly frizzy dark hair in a pony tail.

On her travels, especially to countries with Mughal art that fascinates her - Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India - Oriane found women covering their heads, camouflaging the hair. “Most religions want women to cover their heads and I began wondering about hair,” she says about her curiosity on a subject that has invoked religious orders. The third reason for her interest came from the symbolism she saw between hair and the Gods and Goddesses of Hindu mythology- the dreadlocks of Shiva and the lustrous hair of Kali.

Once the idea began taking shape in her mind’s eye, on her travels in Iran, Oriane began searching for models. It would be easier finding them 20 years ago because women with long hair are not so common anymore, she says.

All her models spoke about the long hair of their grandmothers. In this show Oriane worked with five models and her first was Sindhi from Kochi. She is a fisherman’s daughter and her mother was a domestic help. “I took her pictures at the roof top of a hotel in Fort Kochi four years ago. She was very friendly but when I sought her out this time, she was married and gone,” says Oriane. Her other models were from Orissa and Rajasthan. “Most of them were reluctant to show their faces,” recalls Oriane, but it was hair that she was interested in.

Her first photographs, the ones with Sindhi, are direct and straight forward. But as Oriane’s conceptualisation grows she is clearly seen drawn into the tangles of the locks. The pictures gain depth. The triptych with a model in red in front of a Banyan tree is a dramatic comparison of the aerial roots and the thick, heavy bodied hair of the model. In another, the model posed to throw back her head full of hair is comparative to an animal mane. Cascading hair like a waterfall is another comparative image that the artist draws through the aperture of her digital camera.

“I use a digital camera and overexpose my pictures,” she says about her process. Oriane learnt photography on her travels from friends and other photographers. As a freelance photographer in Kabul she works for a number of NGOs there and also for Le Monde. Oriane has also written about her travels in Pakistan in a book, Une flanuse au Pakistan. She enjoys reading poetry and Charles Baudelaire’s poem on hair is one of her inspirations.

Her Indian connection is deep, she believes. Indian classical dance drew her here. She learnt Kathak and is deeply drawn to Mohiniattam and Bharatanatyam. The hair story and India is still a work in progress for Oriane who says quite simply, “I am jealous of women with long hair, especially women from South India.” The show is hosted by Alliance Franciase de Trivandrum.

Life in Kabul

Oriane Zerah lives and works in Kabul. It’s a choice she made and hence she lives in the war torn country without fear. “Daily life is regular. I wake up and go buy bread,” she says. She adds: Being an artist in Afghanistan can be difficult as the space for art is small and for women the problem is more acute. Free expression is frowned upon, especially in the countryside. Her closest encounter with dangerous living has surprisingly been not in Afghanistan but in Peshawar in Pakistan where a bomb went off behind her.

Kabul, she says, is different in safety from the rest of the country. It is protected. But if American troops leave Afghanistan it will become dangerous once again, she feels.