‘Some people are freaked out’: how Laetitia Ky tackles abortion, sexism and race with her extraordinary hair

Laetitia Ky makes sculptures out of hair, although I’m not sure the word “sculpture” accurately conveys just how dynamic her art is. Her pieces are moments, scenes, statements, emotions, rendered in black afro textured hair. Ky is central to the art. Her sculptures can’t be displayed on a wall or a table. They can’t be bought or taken on tour. Every piece is on her head, extending high up into the space above and around her, a growth of coils and curls that she twists into shapes that seem unfathomable.

There are no gimmicks, technological cheats or shortcuts. Ivory Coast-born Ky, 25, doesn’t even create the sculpture on a flat surface or stand and then attach them to her head. She links hair extensions directly to her own natural fro and then, using a mirror, proceeds to mould both into shapes. If what she wants to build is particularly complicated, she uses wires and glue. This is even more remarkable considering the fact that her pieces range from the bucolic, to the domestic and the political. There are sculptures of household chores, where Ky’s hair extends into a vacuum cleaner she then grips to clean with; others where Ky is the body of an alligator, crawling out of a swamp, her hair the alligator’s head. There are more shocking ones, where Ky’s hair is a womb – on each side, instead of ovaries, there are two middle fingers – or a vagina with period blood pouring from it.

On a video call from her home town of Abidjn, Ky speaks slowly and deliberately, trying to pick the right word in English. Her hair falls long around her shoulders in twists. She describes in her book Love and Justice: A Journey of Empowerment, Activism and Embracing Black Beauty the long path she took to embrace her natural look. Finally accepting her hair was the start of her accepting many other things she had grown up to believe she had to change – her skin colour, her weight, her politics.

“Appreciating my hair let me appreciate other things that made me black,” she says. “Like my skin. I’m very dark-skinned and the beautiful Ivorian woman is supposed to be light-skinned. When I started to love my hair, I started to love my skin, and I started to love the fact that I was black. And when I started to love the fact that I was black, it helped me to love the fact that I was a woman. Loving one thing led me to love another thing.”

Through her art and activism – she studied business administration at university – Ky has found international acclaim, with almost half a million followers on Instagram and a social media contract with Elite Models under her partnership with TikTok. She has also moved into acting, appearing in Philippe Lacôte’s Night of the Kings, with another film role in the works.

But Ky didn’t always have the body confidence that has empowered her work. She started school much earlier than her peers. “I was three years younger than the [next] youngest person. When you’re young, you try to adapt to be at the level of others. It was hard when your school friends already had their periods and you were just a child.” They had “all the curves”, she says, while she was “just a slender child”. She was also a lot darker than her peers. “A lot of them were bleached. So not only am I dark-skinned and the standard is to be light-skinned. But also I am skinny, so I have nothing. I think maybe I was nine when my body image really started to go down.”

She began to binge eat and gained weight, too much as far as a certain boy she had a crush on was concerned. One day in class, he told her that she had a fat stomach. The class laughed. She was humiliated. It was “like a scene from a movie”, she says, and it sent her spiralling in the other direction. “I’m very extreme in everything I feel, everything I want. This was a shock. It shifted my mind in a couple of seconds.” Anorexia came at 13, then bulimia.

“I was just stuck,” she says, unable to find a way out of her illness. It was easy for her to hide it, even though her mother noticed she was losing weight. “I would always wear baggy clothes so she would not see the real deal. All my life revolved around food. I was scared of it. If there was a social thing, I was thinking: ‘Oh my God, I will have to eat something so that people don’t find me weird.’” Then she would start to plan: “Will I be able to go to the bathroom? Will I be able to throw up without people knowing? It was crazy.” Her mother caught her changing one day, and saw Ky’s emaciated body. Her distress was what Ky needed to find a way out, to spare her mother more pain.

This description is such a far cry from the Ky in her sculptures, and the one sitting in front of me, easy in her own skin. I ask her how she changed from the teen who hated her body.

“It definitely didn’t happen overnight,” she says. But where it really started, was with her hair. “I always had relaxed hair. I think I first used hair relaxer when I was five.” Then she saw a picture of Beyoncé with box braids and immediately went to get the same. “It was tight, I had never felt so much pain in my head. But I was loving it. It was pretty. And the rule here is if it’s not painful, then the hairstyle is not OK.” The tension, combined with the fragility of her hair, already damaged by relaxers, meant that she began to lose hair at her hairline. “It was terrifying, all the front of my hair was gone. I needed to hide it, so I did a weave, with some bangs; when I took the wig out, it was even worse.”

She started searching online for a solution and discovered the natural hair community in America. “I was just shocked. I was 16 and it was the first time I was seeing black women with their natural hair. Can you imagine living in a country full of black women, and I’ve never seen this before? I was amazed.” She cut off all her hair and told herself: “I will try to come to natural and see what will happen.” That decision unlocked something else. “This is where everything started.”

While her hair grew she started following social media accounts promoting the black aesthetic, including one on Facebook that posted about African culture before colonisation. “One day,” she says, the account featured a photo album of “African women prior to colonisation. Their hair was just [she gestures upwards from her head] ooop! It was also sculpture, decorated with beads. The shape they were able to give to their hair … I was very curious. How did they do this? I felt like I needed to experience myself how to create some shape too.” She teased her hair with extensions into a high column and posted it online. It got more attention than she expected, so she made some more shapes and posted again. “I was trying to push a little bit further every time I was posting, and the attention got bigger and bigger all the time.”

When Ky first started posting on social media, she tells me she began receiving messages from women thanking her for her work and saying it was the first time they had seen a black woman so proud that she had turned herself into art. “I started to realise that maybe what I was doing was more powerful than I thought it was,” Ky says. “If I really try to use it to share what is important for me, it can make a difference.” Initially her pieces were about gender equality rather than race, “because growing up in Ivory Coast, this did not seem as much of an issue.” She began to explore racial issues after there was international interest in this element of her art.

Her ability to question sexual taboos was seeded by her family, thanks to her unusually liberal parents. They separated when Ky was young but both tried to ensure that Ky felt comfortable with her body and sexuality, despite Ky’s mother being from a very strict family. “On my first day of college,” she says, “my dad took a box of condoms and gave it to me, saying: ‘It will happen there. Make sure you protect yourself.’ It was so awkward. I wanted to hide. My parents never tried to make sex a taboo for me and my sister.”

The response to her work has been unexpected, both at home and abroad. In Ivory Coast, she was surprised to discover that “some women share the same beliefs but weren’t bold enough to tell it out loud”. Others, she says, predictably “freaked out” when she talked or made art about abortion, for example, telling her: “I love what you create but I don’t like what you say.” But what really took Ky by surprise was how her work got caught up in the slipstream of a western discourse about gender identification. Her focus on the punishment of biological womanhood has attracted comments that she is excluding trans women from her feminism. Ky is upfront about how the context is unfamiliar to her. “I’m not gonna lie, I don’t fully understand it. But in Ivory Coast we have things like excision, we have things like breast flattening. So when I come out there trying to express all this and someone tells me sex doesn’t exist, only gender exists, I’m like: ‘What are you saying? Sorry, but no.’”

She explains that her anger on this issue is about her work being critiqued by what she believes is a self-centred western issue. She also hears from western women who thank her for saying women have wombs. “Every time I talk about sex as a reason of oppression of African women, some western people get mad. And I’m always like: ‘I’m sorry, maybe your experience is different but I’m not going to shut myself up to make you feel better about your convictions. Because those things are really happening where I come from. I also understand they have an experience I don’t have, so maybe what they think is OK concerning their experience. I’m talking about me. If it was different for you, that’s cool. I think inclusivity is a very good thing. I’m a black woman.”

Ky seems broadly unshaken by any criticism, either at home or abroad. “I have learned to be very strong. I surround myself with people who agree with me.” She bats away social censure constantly about her life choices, from not shaving her armpits to not wanting children or marriage, in a society where these things are non-negotiable milestones for women. “I’ve never felt the need to have children or to be married,” she says, breezily. “Maybe it’s because I’ve never been around a successful marriage in my life. Of course I am interested in finding love. I want to find someone I will grow and build things with. I don’t think we necessarily need to be married.”

At such a young age, Ky speaks as if her work is done. Her focus now is on others. “I want to inspire other women to speak,” she says. “When you start to believe you’re valuable, that you’re worth something, you don’t accept injustice any more. You want respect. You want to be free.”

Love and Justice: A Journey of Empowerment, Activism, and Embracing Black Beauty by Laetitia Ky (Princeton Architectural Press, £19.99) is published 5 April

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