(RNN) – In a group of photos, a photographer featured a common question and curiosity black women face when it comes to their hair: "Can I touch it?"
In her artwork currently being held at a New York photography gallery, photographer Endia Beal, 28, depicts white female baby boomers in corporate America in hairstyles most associated with their black counterparts.
During her time working in an IT department while completing her M.F.A. in photography at Yale University, her look - a black woman with a natural hairstyle around a mostly white male staff - was a hot topic among her peers.
"I am a 5'10 black woman with a large red afro," Beal said. Her hair was "the elephant in the room" during her time there.
Her colleagues were fascinated by her hair, and when a coworker told her about the male's fascination, she approached the situation with an artistic experiment.
Beal set up two cameras in her workspace, asked each male coworker to come with her and touch her hair.
"I didn't want them to just touch it. I wanted them to pull of it - to really feel it," Beal said.
Most of the men said in post-hair touching interviews it was uncomfortable experience for their first time touching a black woman's hair.
That first project inspired the project which has earned her recent acclaim – what if these black hairstyles were seen on middle aged white women? Entitled "Can I Touch It?" is now a collective artwork that includes the video from her initial project.
Beal had seven subjects take on cornrows, finger waves and other hairstyles traditionally associated with black women and photographed them in corporate attire in corporate portraits. The women were not allowed to choose their hairstyle and were photographed whether they liked they style or not.
The women who participated in the photo shoot were curious but receptive to the hairstyles and the photos. After having their hair done, Beal said many of them wanted to go out in the public with them, and some were excited to go and show their husbands their new styles.
The reaction to the photos going viral have been warranted – discussions on race, hair and politics in the workplace – are all what Beal wanted to be seen in the photos, not just the gestures of the hair on the women.
"All art deserves to receive [a reaction of] tension," Beal said. "I have received a lot of messages, and the messages have conveyed feelings of empowerment to feelings of discomfort."
The reaction from across the country has been constant since her initial interview on Slate. Beal said even some of her close friends have contacted her online and in social media saying they feel uncomfortable with seeing the otherwise normal white women with these hairstyles. Others have messaged her saying they feel empowered by her meaningful artwork.
"The goal is to make the comfortable uncomfortable and that's the message I am trying to get across," said Beal.
Her artwork is currently being held at the Center for Photography at Woodstock in Woodstock, NY and is a piece that includes the photos "that showcase the interactions between white men and black women in business settings." Beal is looking at exhibit spaces to show her work.
Beal plans to continue her project and complete it with similar photos added to her collection, and is currently seeking funding to complete it. She is also going to launch the full video of her experiment and other interviews with her website endiabeal.com on Nov. 1.
Beal says her artwork is more than just middle-aged corporate white women in hairstyles that are worn by their black counterparts; her artwork is about seeing past the perceptions and creating a dialogue on being in someone else's place.
"It's more than the gesture of having the hair; it's the message and being reversed in that role for those women," said Beal. "It's the idea of stepping outside of ourselves in that experience – that's what it is about."
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