On a Friday night in early December, Dana McKnight knelt on the floor of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, grabbed a fistful of her hair and tugged so hard that the nerves behind her eyes started twitching.
McKnight's performance, "Trussed," which she repeated on Jan. 6 in the BOX Gallery on Main Street, lasted more more than three hours. It featured the artist hoisting herself off the ground by her own long dreadlocks, which were looped over a swing-set contraption built to resemble a gallows.
The piece -- both the performance and the hair-laden swingset on view in the BOX Gallery through Jan. 31 -- was designed to be an unsettling commentary on black women's complex relationship to their own hair, and to the social and racial expectations it embodies.
McKnight, a writer, visual artist and co-founder of the DIY arts space Dreamland, said she created the piece in part to critique the way black women are pressured to straighten and chemically treat their hair to fit social expectations.
"More than anything I just wanted to goad people into thinking outside of their comfort space by physically being present with me while I’m in pain," McKnight said. "I wanted the world outside of black women to get a glimpse into the day-to-day traumas of black women."
The swing-set-styled gallows on view in the BOX Gallery features five feet of braids, with each foot meant to represent a generation of McKnight's family and millions of other black women "who had to straighten their hair as a survival strategy."
"It’s an homage to my grandmother and my great aunts who were all hairdressers. And as much as I want to lambaste them, they did it for our survival," she said. "They started that survival technique out when you were a little kid. This is how you’re going to actually meander through a very Euro-centric world, especially in the workplace."
"Trussed" comes at a time when the conversation about the oppression of African Americans has increasingly focused on black women's hair. From Chris Rock's acclaimed 2009 documentary "Good Hair" to Solange's new song "Don't Touch My Hair," artists across the spectrum are increasingly embracing hair as a site and symbol of cultural trauma.
Those five feet of braids hanging in the BOX Gallery window, McKnight said, both critique the deeply ingrained practices of hair-straightening and relaxing and honor those who were forced to carry them out.
"Each foot is representative of five generations of black women that have hammered out this black hair aesthetic into the next generation," she said. "I’m hoisting myself up using this generational trauma."
The intended effect of the performance and installation, she suggested, is to bring that seemingly quiet trauma out of the salons and into the open -- to make it impossible to ignore.
What: "Trussed," installation by Dana McKnight
Where: BOX Gallery, 667 Main St.
When: Through Jan 31 with closing reception Jan. 31.