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World Textures

Times Staff Writer

Hair is a tangle.

It’s a loaded gesture. As charged as talking politics at the dinner table. As knotty as dialogue on class or religion. It’s what side you stand on. It’s how you stand apart. It’s a language all its own.

Case in point: Darcel Walker, a temporary mail-room clerk who was recently moved to sue his employer, alleging it forced him to choose between his paycheck and his dreadlocks.

This isn’t the first time a company has been sued or a job left over the issue of hair--most particularly, braids, twists, dreadlocks. The choices communicate cultural connections or make political statements, either in the mind of the wearer or in the perceptions of the viewer.

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“You hear it a lot,” says photographer Alfonse Pagano, “ ‘It’s only hair . . . but it isn’t.’ That’s right, it’s political.”

And then some.

In a grand new picture book, “Dreads” (Artisan, 1999), Pagano and photographer Francesco Mastalia (with an introduction by Alice Walker) document various extrapolations of the perpetually weighty dreadlocks theme.

From tattooed Maori warriors and Rasta-Buddhists to India’s sadhus (mystics) and Namibia’s Himba tribe, “Dreads” makes a round-the-world trek recording various interpretations of locks and examines the internal paths--from spiritual awakening to ideological commitment--symbolized by this crowning glory.

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After five years, more than 300 subjects and a couple of thousand images--culled to 100--the book, less bible and more appreciation, “is not definitive,” says Pagano. “We’re not scholars. We are two photographers. It’s about a beautiful statement and the visual beauty of dreadlocks.”

Dreadlocks--the natural textured coil or interweave of hair if left to nature’s hand--have roots in the Bible. One of the earliest manifestations was on the Kenyan Mau Mau, who wore them as a sign of resistance against white colonists. Dreadlocks blossomed in popular consciousness in Jamaica through the powerful presence and message of such high-profile, peaceful warriors as musicians Bob Marley and Peter Tosh--who subscribed to the tenets of Rastafarians, historical opponents of Jamaica’s British regime. They, write Pagano and Mastalia, “considered it their calling to expose the corruption of the colonial system.”

With ideology drawn from the tenets of Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, his Pan-Africanist movement and Scripture, Rastafaranism was ultimately ignited by the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy in 1935. That event forced Emperor Haile Selassie, the former Prince Ras Tafari, into exile. “Bahatowie priests of the Ethiopian Coptic Church . . . swore not to cut their locks until . . . Selassie . . . was reinstated to the throne. Rastafarianism was born.”

As the echo of resistance spread, so did its symbols. In Jamaica, the conservative sector deemed the “uncontrollable tresses” frightening--hence the term “dreadlocks.”

Nowadays, one need only take a spin on the remote or a stroll down the street to catch a glimpse of the evolution. High-profile celebs like hip-hop diva Lauryn Hill or boxer Lennox Lewis have chosen dreadlocks, but they’re also appearing in the boardroom, the supermarket and behind the TV news anchor desk.

“We wanted to portray beauty and dignity,” says Mastalia. “There’s a majority of people under the impression that it started in Jamaica. That that was the catalyst . . . but in reality it goes much deeper than that.”

Their hope, says Mastalia, is that the book can affirm for people who are deciding to “lock.” “I’ve heard already that this book became the inspiration to do it. It’s a commitment you’re making. It’s a strong statement to do it. And some people are seeing the beauty and meaning of it.”


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