“We despise all reverences and all the objects of reverence which are outside the pale of our own list of sacred things. And yet, with strange inconsistency, we are shocked when other people despise and defile the things which are holy to us.”   Mark Twain

“When people are stripped of their identities, they will develop a huge need for nostalgia. It is a mysterious thing. The fashionable costumes worn by the young are really nostalgia. Jeans, the love of levis, it is really grandpa’s work clothes. It is the motley costume of the clown. A clown is a person with a grievance:  the voice of grievance who tells the emperor or ruler what was wrong with society. He may lose his head with the telling - but the clown is trying to tell us what is wrong with society.”   Marshall McLuhan

Winnie Truong - 2010 - Spectacle

Winnie Truong - 2010 - Spectacle (detail of color pencil)


As noted in “Living in Hairy Times, Part I,” at only 23 years old Winnie Truong has shared her large scale drawings here in the US and in Canada. Part II of “Living in Hairy Times” will display more of Winnie Truong’s impressive works and her unwavering attraction to hair, while wandering through the related periods of art history devoted to reliquaries, ancient magic, the Victorian era, Steampunk and the theme of carnivals.  Though the art terrain to cover is vast, there are many perspicacious connections that can be made to this fresh new artist’s work along with ties to a wider group of artists. The continuing theme is hair entwined with antiquity.

Winnie Truong-2011-Hard to Win Over
A reliquary is a container that is used to store objects considered sacred. The Catholic Church defines the remains of a saint or holy person as relics, from the Latin reliquiae meaning remains. Relics are held inside special containers called reliquaries. Museum curators over the past decades have described vessels from multiple cultures that hold a special or sacred object as a ‘reliquary,’ so it has become a more neutral word over time in the curatorial arts. In this essay, therefore, there is a section on Equatorial African reliquaries that in the past may have been called ‘statues’ or ‘figures,’ that have more recently been reclassified ‘reliquary’ status.

Wax figure, 2nd century AD, found in Egypt
This wax figure, above, has a hair embedded in the belly. Papyrus that was found in the back of the piece was blurred and unreadable, so whatever wish was intended for the figure, good or ill, has been lost to time. Magic and spells were used in day-to-day Egyptian life, and hair was commonly used to help invoke an outcome in spiritual processes. [reference - British Museum]

The wax form was buried in a graveyard according to an older Egyptian style practice, despite the Roman rule of the period. Hair could have been used as a hex or as a healing spell, a wish for good intentions, or for bad. It likely was a wish very similar to our wishes of today; related to love, money, or advancing in the world. In fact, it is surprising to find that magic or ritual intentions such as this, with wax figures and hair, have been common in human history throughout time, from Ancient Egypt and Rome to current Wicca and Vodou. However, one may be surprised to learn that this is usually not accurately relayed as Wicca uses candles, or wax figures for sympathetic magic, and voodoo dolls are from movies not from actual history. For this Roman-Egyptian spell, the hair added to the wax body is believed to been an attempt to tie the intended recipient to the spell, so that the spell would work on the designated person.
Luba, late 19th century medicinal six headed figure

Hair on this six-headed figure above from the Equatorial African Luba tribe came from twins. This is a reliquary work, from the late 19th century Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), and is an example of African traditional tribal art.  The piece comes from a British collection and is very similar to the works that influenced artists Picasso and Braque, though they were influenced by the flat plate like figures of the Kota tribes. Traditional tribal practitioners who worked with reliquary objects were also working with forces called bankishi and used the object for medicinal, healing or divination. The faces of the reliquary look in each direction to offer protection. The hair of twins gives additional power to the bankishi, so the practitioner might enhance their powers to aid those in need. The center of the piece is a hollow tube, which acts as a container for additional objects.  The hair on the reliquary gives power to cast a spell, provide protection, heal, or provide divination. [reference - British Museum]

Reliquary: standing female figure Kota people, Rep. Congo 19th Century
Reliquary Ensemble: female half-figure Gabon, 19th century

More spiritual than an object of art, each tribe had a unique style. Yet disparate tribes might share a similar languages of postures or materials. The link to community and family through the ancestral sculptures came through the hair and bone that was kept inside the reliquary, either in the sculpture's wooden body, or in the reliquary basket beneath the sculpture. Sculptures like these examples above have secret compartments for important objects or personal elements such as hair or bone fragments of past ancestors. The family statuary would collect together in groupings and would hold generations of donations from many ages of families of a region. 

Kota reliquary grouping, drawing from late 1800's

Reliquaries were shared in a family with hair placed inside from members of important individuals, which were then replenished with the hair and bones of more recent generations. As family legends and stories grew or faded, certain statues or icons would become more or less important. As well, as elder generations died and might have seemed less available for interventions for the family group remaining on earth who were praying to the ancestors for help,  new intercessors would take over for the earthbound tribe. This would continue the lineage one generation taking up the mantle for the prior, and continuing the strength of ancestor connection, who the most recent generation would not have known directly. Each reliquary had many generations' hair, contributed from the most important tribal members. Statues themselves were meant to physically appear to sit, as if on the edge of a wall, or seated, as if joining the tribal unit at the table, or at the circle, for important decisions. 

In the Kota style, which have a flat face plate, with a reliquary basket below, they are shown in images from the period as being set on platforms together. They are also shown in photographs as being taken out when in use. Drawings and photos from the period indicate that the figures joined the families in their daily life.

Kota reliquary, Gabon region

At the time of their “discovery” there was much writing about the Kota reliquaries having “legs”, jumping lithely, in a diamond abstraction style (see above).  Now it is known that the diamond shape of the base was made for connecting to the reliquary basket. [reference, Metropolitan Museum] The misinterpretation of the Modernists did not stop from inspiring them or prevent them from being invigorated by the new forms that were revealed to them in the African work, despite their mistaken physiognomy.

Reliquary and basket beneath, late 1800's, Gabon region

Picasso's DesMoiselles D'Avignon, inspired by Equitorial African Reliquary arts


Winnie Truong - 2011 - Most Absorbing
Reliquary for the Head of St. Martin de Tours
St. John Neumann, d. 1860
Saint Neuman relics, modern saint

Christianity’s reliquaries contain hair as a very common element throughout the entire history of the religion's existence. Many reliquaries are housed in museums in a strange in-between state, removed from their original devotional context in much the same way as the African Equatorial works discussed in the section above.  As so many early Christians were martyred, it is believed that the relic may have sprung from the desire to immortalize and never forget the sacrifices early believers made for their chosen religion. As well, in ancient Rome, early Christians met and celebrated near or in catacombs, therefore some scholars note that this may be the cause of an early beginning of the close tie between death and relic veneration.  The earliest mention of relics was in 156 AD, when St. Polycarp was burned at the stake in Smyrna. His disciples said in their writings at the time, “we took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom." This sentiment of preserving the bodies, bones, hair of saints became a foundation of the early church. While it was discouraged by later papal gatherings, many today still believe in the relic's powerful meanings and the system of relic making. Hair of a martyr was often something that could be easily made into a relic, stored in a reliquary, and shared with other faithful communities. Today, hair of Mother Teresa even though not yet declared a saint, is being sent out among the faithful to gather support for her eventual sainthood.

Mother Theresa, beatified, in process of sainthood. Above, hair, blood, and her sandals as well as photos.

Winnie Truong - 2011 - Bear Arms
Leonardo Da Vinci, Study, Drawing of Leda and Swan, Leda's Hairstyles 1508
St. Balbina, Roman Martyr, Relic created in 1520, contains the skull of the martyr, from 1st century AD
St. Balbina, back view of reliquary
Winnie Truong - 2011 - Hollow Comfort

St. Peter's relics lie below St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, adjacent to the Holy See, or the Vatican, essentially the Catholic Church's most holy location. Often large cathedrals or important monuments will be located nearby important reliquaries or sites of a saint’s burial. But the reliquary was also built to endure travel with compartments guarded with velvet or wrapped in silk to keep small items safe. Due to the delicate nature of the human remains they carried, Christian reliquaries would be built to sustain over time, of precious or enduring materials, often representing literally the item contained inside. They might hold a part of a holy individual's body, hair, bone, skin, or an item owned by the person. A very beautiful collection can be found at the Metropolitan Museum. The skull of St. Balbina is a very early Roman relic, that is contained in the beautiful reliquary above that was made in the 1500’s in the style of the period, even to the braided hair style which was a fashion of the time.

Prints of reliquaries, like this, were popularized for the faithful who could not get to visit one in person

Winnie Truong - 2010 - Thinly Veiled Curiousity
Relics may contain hair, as well as bone, teeth, a fragment of cloth from a saint's dress, or items the saint might have owned or touched. Sometimes relics are more ambitious, and contain an entire part of a saint's body. Reliquaries may also contain pieces of the “true cross”, a shard of the spear used to strike Christ at the crucifixion, or a thorn of the crown of thorns that was on Christ’s head at his death. Of the strangest, least well known, but most fascinating relic of the Catholic faith is the incorruptible. In this case, the entire person, hair and all, is maintained forever. They never decompose. Visitors report miraculous acts within the vicinity of the incorruptible. In all reliquaries and saints, there are generally plaques covering the walls of the location saints, reliquaries and incorruptibles remain, documenting acts of grace at these religious sites such as this image with canes left behind.

St. Bernadette Soubirous, d. 1879 - Incorruptible

Saint Catherine Laboure d.1876 - Incorruptible

Plaques cover the wall at a shrine, and canes are left behind by those healed
Winnie Truong, 2011, Matter of Manhood


Hair has reemerged in popularity through the Victorian and Edwardian stylings and sensibilities from the mid 1800s to the early 1900’s. Re-popularized by films, animation, and illustrations, the popular expression has loosely become known as the Steam Punk movement. It is something that while not ubiquitously popular, it has found a niche interest and is worth a mention especially when talking about hair. Steam Punk has its roots in Victorian/Edwardian time period, coupled with sci-fi romanticism, archaic steam engine machine technology plus Jules Verne fantasy, plus a great flair for the dramatic. View a flickr feed of the term ‘steam punk’ to get a wide variety of images of the movement. 

steampunk contraptions, jules verne inspired
steampunk inspired fashion

Winnie Truong - 2011 - When in the Hood

Steam Punk can wander into a multi colored, dreamy, Burning Man 'playa' sensibility, or to a costumed vampiric, goth palette; or it can go into a totally fabricated, machine append-aged, gears, clockwork, springs and steam engined powered mode. It is part nostalgia, but part futuristic – an alternate world. Below, the Neverwas Haul, a Jules Verne-inspired Victorian house on wheels, was a main attraction at a recent Burning Man. The Steam Punk Tree House, glowing further to the right in the image below, was also inspired by the SteamPunk aesthetic.
Neverwas Haul and SteamWorks Tree House, Burning Man (photo Lane Hartwell)

steam punk 'lolita' style

steampunk style




Tangentially, images from Truong’s oeuvre evoke references of carnival that are archetypal in Americana– the bearded lady, the half man-half woman, the freak, the wolf man. Traveling carnivals were popular at the turn of the century America and Europe during the late 1800s Victorian era to mid 1900’s. 

Winnie Truong - 2009 - Lady Gymkata
Winnie Truong - 2011 - A Quiet Place to Rest

Winnie Truong - 2011 - Splitting Image
Madame Olga with 2nd husband, bearded lady
A Hairy "Wild" Man

"Long-Hair" with optically enhanced hair
Sutherland Sisters - well known Long Hair act

Today, the art world has had several iterations of the New Grotesque, the Modern Gothic (like Banks Violette), and trends that reference palettes of darker, Victorian inspired elements that can be seen from current fashion trends to past Whitney biennials. The aspects of the Victorian which today seem macabre, about life and death, are very absorbing for many current highly popular art world celebrities. Most well known of these are perhaps the Young British artistsFor Victorians, these attitudes, in a time of disease and death that was all too common, it was a regular part of life. The artist Polly Morgan is normally singled out from this group, in context with the Victorian aesthetic, but I'd like to mention Sabrina Brewer instead and favor a similar home grown artist.

Polly Morgan - 2005 - Still Life After Death Pigeon

Sabrina Brewer - Capircorn
Ms. Brewer, who hails from the US, is a Minnesotan, and a naturalist. She is a certified taxidermist. Like many taxidermists, she is a wildlife lover, a conservationist, and she also works at the local science museum. She has a picture of St. Francis on her My Space page, and also happened to be featured in a Penthouse Magazine article in March, though only demurely in front of her artwork in a tasteful dress. While shock and awe might be a part of Ms. Brewer's artistic repertoire here, there is a quiet interest in the deep underbelly of death, of the preservation of the past, and perhaps a glorification of the history of lives lived that becomes dramatized through her oeuvre. Ms. Brewer glories in the inevitability of the end, but makes it beautiful while taking us, the viewer, down the river Styx. I am not sure the Victorian ladies would approve of Ms. Brewer’s persona, but the inherent desire to record and remember those who have gone before is something any Victorian would understand. 

Sabrina Brewer - Classic Griffin

Jessica Joslin -2004 - Enzon and Donato
Artists such as Jessica Joslin are also influenced by Victorian, carnival, and steam punk aethetics. She takes her creations to a more fanciful place. The detail and workmanship in the fine art objects are gorgeously exquisite. Joslin’s resulting creatures are appealing with their fine detail and use of brass, velvet, findings, antique hardware and beads which turn the skeletons/figures into artistic creatures which are both whimsical and unique.
Jessica Joslin - 2005 - Perrin
Jessica Joslin - 2005 -Silvio


Replica watch fobs, used instead of watch chains in Victorian era, made from hair

The hair wreaths, watch fobs (watch chains) created from a loved one's hair, and Victorian hairstyles are coming back into public consciousness with the Steam Punk mode of fashion. Therefore, it is of cultural significance and reveals potential meaning in this discussion inherent within its subculture’s expression today. 

Designs for Hair jewelry
Treasures that we have remaining today of Victorian era hair, as in the images of the Sutherland sisters for example, or in hair jewelry preserved in brooches, bracelets, and watch chains or ‘fobs,’ show how hair was viewed as a material for use in jewelry making - just as useful as leather, silk, thread, or silver. Brooches could contain woven locks of hair, or have a single lock of hair enclosed - signifying loss - for a memorial purpose, but it might also signify love or friendship.

woven pin design, made on a table style loom

 During the 1800’s, many families memorialized their dearly departed by taking hair from loved ones and saving it in beautiful lockets, or in pins that were worn during extended mourning periods. This craft/art form was used in daily life and was as common as a mother today taking a lock of hair and taping it into a baby book.

woven style brooch
hair of one person

Women in particular, in the Victorian era, were judged by their hair for their beauty. They also wore clothing that covered almost every part of the body except the hair. Therefore the hair of a woman became an admired ‘crowning glory.’ Hair wreaths were also made for sentimental, romantic, and memorial reasons. These have not sustained time as well as the brooches and pins, but they might have been also lovely when they were once created.

pin brooch, with blond hair

Victorian death pictorials, shed light of the use of hair for remembrance as the times did not have photographic evidence to recall the familiar, and hair was a way to remember one we loved. Today we have so many ways to recall someone – a photo, video, it seems endless. In those times, locks of hair were valued keepsakes, imbued with the essence of the individual who once was connected to its source. 

Memorial brooch, with hair, ring (front)
memorial brooch with hair, ring (back)

Victorian death photo
The death photo shown here may have been the only image the family had of the individual who passed away. For many who could not afford a photo – a lock of hair might be the only way to recall one’s loved one. Hair was a messenger of the Victorian belief of memento mori or, remember -we must all die.


Contemporary artists use Victorian ideas great outcomes in the contemporary art scene.  Melanie Bilenker uses hair in methods very similar to historic Victorian era jewelry designs, but she combines the historic jewelry styles of brooches, rings, and pins with modern tableaux of interiors, with female subjects. Her works are quiet and gentle, and aligned with the original Victorian meanings of hair jewelry.


Melanie Bilenker - 2008 - Chocolate (Brooch)

She notes in her bio, "The Victorians kept lockets of hair and miniature portraits painted with ground hair and pigments to secure the memory of a lost love. In much the same way, I secure my memories through photographic images rendered in lines of my own hair, the physical remnants. I do not reproduce events, but quiet minutes, the mundane, the domestic, the ordinary moments."
Melanie Bilenker - 2004 - Bathroom Mirror (Brooch)
Anna Gaskell is known for work that reveals psychological moments of tense school girl moments, shown as if caught just at a moment of hair pulling, nose holding, or rolling around on the grass, with just a touch of male view fantasy.  There is Victorian/Gothic sensibility in the images, that may come from the origins of the group of one-sex model of schooling of the 1800's, or from the dark and ominous nuance of the work. The image shown here is from a project she worked on at the Menil Museum in Houston, from the project called "Half Life." Hair acts like a veil, ghost like, a presence or ominous reminder of someone who is being whisked away or peeking in to spook you. Gaskell's work is wonderfully nuanced and brings unfinished narratives that evoke a host of mind play for the viewer to complete. 

Anna Gaskell - 2002 - Untitled # 90 (half life)
Later in the first wave of feminist movements, as suffragettes began their fledgling demands for support of abused wives, in the late 1800’s, to ask for the legal right to inherit property, hair styles began to change from the long lengths to shorter, more elaborate updo’s, to the more sleek modern ‘gibson girl’ look. As we know, the 1920’s brought the flapper and the bob, and the vote – which must have seemed a shock to the Victorians who only a decade or two before had never shown an ankle, or dared to cut their hair.

Charles Dana - Gibson Girl

Magazine from 1900 -19 Gibson Girl era, showing hairstyle techniques

Hairstyle lessons from press of era

Winnie Truong - 2011 - Vainglorious

Watch for the next installment of Living in Hairy Times, Part III, which will take us through more of Winnie Truong's artwork. As well, there will be more on the use of hair as a medium and its message in our society's art, from the 1920's to the current times. 

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