Sculpting, the Body, and Activism: A Chat with Laetitia Ky
On her background:
My name is Laetitia Ky. I was born in Ivory Coast, and I grew up in Ivory Coast. I still live here. I'm 25. I'm known for for sculpting my hair in general, but like I do a lot of different things. I am in acting, fashion design, and I’m an activist.
On the inspiration behind her technique:
Maybe six years ago, I saw an amazing photo album of African woman prior to colonization that was showcasing woman with incredible hair decorated with beads and a lot of different ornaments. I was just shocked when I saw those picture. I was directly inspired. It was my culture before the colonization. It immediately made me want to experiment with my own hair. This is really where everything started.
On her previous experiences with her hair:
I was in a period where I was comfortable, but since I was a child, I was relaxing my hair. Everyone around me was. It was just the norm. Maybe my first day relaxing I was five. You can't even blame parents because they even don't know that those things can be dangerous. I've had accidents. I've lost all my hair in the front because with the hair relaxer my hair was already very weak. When I was looking for ways to make my hair grow again, I discovered the black American community with natural hair. I was shocked. I was 16, and it was the first time I was seeing black woman with natural hair even though I live in an African country. It inspired me to shave my hair and try to appreciate my natural hair. A couple of years later that I discovered this picture.
On planning each piece:
It can be very spontaneous. I'm inspired by literally everything around me, it can be my personal experience someone else experience. Everything can inspire me. Once I have the idea or an idea just come to my mind, and I try to do it. I take a piece of paper and pencil and try to draw what I want it to look like. I sometimes use extensions since sometimes I need a lot of hair. I add wire to make my hair easier to bend.
On uplifting black women:
When I discovered the picture, I really wanted to experiment with my hair. It was nothing but a love of creating, a love of experimenting and trying things. The first thing I did was a beach. I posted it, and everyone around me was just shocked and saying, “please do something again!” So, I did a circle, a square, I was trying to do pretty simple shapes. I was posting them, and every time I was getting more likes and more comments. Eventually, I became viral. I started receiving message from woman all over the world, especially black woman saying my photographs were helping them with feel better about the hair, their skin, and their blackness. I wasn't even trying intentionally to inspire them. I was just having fun with my hair. I was just posting for the beauty and the aesthetic. But those women were feeling inspired by it. This was like my turning point, receiving those messages. I was like, “what if I really tried? What if I start to put a message?” This is when I started to intentionally try to use my hair to spread awareness.
On her series “16 Days of Activism”:
Each year, there is a campaign worldwide with international activists for the equality of sexes on November 25th. This last year, I really wanted to participate more. For 16 days, I wanted to speak about something. I'm fighting for myself, but also fighting for other woman. When I share things, most of the time those are my stories. But there are also women that follow me, so why not share their stories. So I took my phone, telling them about the 16 Days of Activism, saying, “send me your story, I want to share it. It can be anonymous, or I can put your name if you want to have other women relate to it better and to know that they are not alone.” My PMs went wild. I'm not going to lie: at some points where I felt that I never should’ve started this because it was pretty horrible to read all those horrible stories. I couldn’t post everything because I received a lot of messages. Seeing so many stories of abuse, violence, and pure cruelty -- and seeing that some of those women still in those situations -- can be really heartbreaking and really hard on my mental health. It was very hard. But I'm happy that I did this because I know it's not only women that shared the stories, but also women that read it. It’s something I will do again, even if it's not easy.
On the importance of the body as a medium:
The body is very political. In many cultures, it’s literally something that doesn’t belong to us. I am West African. I come from a culture where there is a lot of female genital mutilation. Once you're born, when you don't even talk yet, we mutilate you. They’re doing a lot of horrible things to your body without your consent. In a lot of cultures, women don't even own their own body. It’s even stronger with black woman sometimes in a lot of African cultures. So being able to reappropriate your body, to exhibit it, and to show that you're proud of it is already a strong statement. So, when in addition to that you are using it to create art that is supposed to be beautiful, powerful, and inspirational, that is even stronger. The female body everywhere in the world, but especially here, is very demonized. Our boobs are considered perverse, our periods are dirty, a lot of things about the feminine, the female biology, is just less than. When you’re able to reappropriate yourself and considered it as something worthy of being in a work of art, it's really a strong statement.
Because I'm very dark skinned, women tell me, “Oh my God, this is the first time I'm seeing a very dark-skinned woman.” Especially Ivorian woman, because a lot of women bleach their skin because the standard here is light skin. They come to me and say, “this is the first time I’ve seen a very dark-skinned woman so confident, and you will inspire me to just stop bleaching my skin.” That’s a huge victory for me when I see message like that, because I know what it is to struggle with all those aspects, my hair, my skin. Seeing that I'm able to also have women stop struggling with those aspects is really a huge victory for me.
On her favorite piece:
Yeah, definitely, there is this piece. It was me sculpting, a female uterus. I used red extensions to make a period flowing. I was just expressing the pride of having the biology I have. As a West African woman, my biology is demonized. Your boobs, you must hide. There is a cultural thing is called breast flattening. When your boobs start growing, they use a type of a wood spatula to make them disappear because they say that they will attract men. There are so many things with the female biology in Africa that that can make a woman really hate the body she's in. I know what it is like because there was a period where I just hated everything about being a woman, everything about my period, everything about having boobs, everything about that. When I came to a place where I was now loving it, I really felt the need to celebrate it. This is why I made this sculpture. It was very controversial. But I also received a lot of messages from all over from woman saying they were feeling the same way I described, which was very positive.
On her final message to the audience:
Believe in yourself, dream big, go out of your comfort zone, and do your thing. Life will make amazing things happen.
Noelle Chung, ‘25, is a reporter for WHRB News. Follow her on Twitter @Noelle_Chung_ . For any questions and news tips, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Tune into "As We Know It" on Sunday at 12:00 p.m. EST for more stories like this one.