Shani Crowe: the braid queen who turns hair into art

These mesmerising braids celebrate the beauty of black femininity.

Shani Crowe

The visuals that accompany Solange’s modern masterpiece A Seat at the Table have been widely praised since the album’s release. For her debut on Saturday Night Live, she reached out to the undisputed hair braid queen of Chicago, Shani Crowe, to add some magic to the event. For the performance, Crowe created a devastatingly beautiful and intricate braided headpiece that took over 50 hours to make and contained over 2000 Swarovski crystals.

“I never really pursued making a business of it,” Crowe said in a conversation with Fusion. “But it just became that because I was really passionate about it.”

Shani Crowe

Shani Crowe

A sacred art in many ways, the art of braiding black women’s hair is rich in tradition. Like most women, Crowe learned to braid hair at the feet of her grandmother and older cousins, practising diligently on her dolls. Once she began doing her own hair, the styles she would create for herself began to attract attention.

Crowe’s path from hairstylist to artist became apparent last year when, with the help of 3Arts, a non-profit organisation in Chicago that works to promote local artists, her first solo show, “Braids” opened in April 2016. Featuring beautifully shot stills of her detailed braid work, the show elevated her creations beyond just a hairstyle. Not long after that did she receive the fateful phone call from Solange.

Shani Crowe

Shani Crowe

Shani Crowe

This January, Crowe participated in a live braiding performance in New Orleans as part of an event for Saint Heron’s (Solange’s online platform and record label) artist talk series ‘Roll Back, Say That’. The live presentation of “Braids” took front and centre and concluded with an intimate discussion moderated by the cultural practitioner and entrepreneur, Gia Hamilton.

Part of what compels Crowe to continue this work is a deep appreciation of her culture and a desire to highlight the divinity she sees in black women.

“I want to show black people for the gods that they are,” she says. “Not that just black people are gods, but I think everyone has a divine spark in them. I think that [divine spark is] not anywhere outside of yourself. Everyone has to start with the divine within and I really want to capture that with the braids that I do.”

All images sourced from Crowe's Instagram account: @crowezilla

Shani Crowe

Shani Crowe

Shani Crowe