Gele & Suku

Style Above the Collar

DISCUSSION OF THE FASHIONED body so often focuses on clothing; but, no less a realm for the symbolic power of fashion, is the head. In today’s post we raise our eyes to one of the many such cultural phenomena that sits on the highest peak of the human body. Photographer J.D. ‘Okhai-Ojeikere has spent his life’s work documenting the hairstyles of the women of his homeland Nigeria, and the elaborate creations that were created in this context. With Bill Cunningham-style dedication, ‘Okhai-Ojeikere has photographed every possible hairstyle – from the twisting, binding, weaving strands of hair into sculptural forms their hair in a ‘suku’ style, to the adorned heads of starched twists of fabric known as the ‘gele’ headdress.

J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere ‘Onile Gogoro or Akaba’ (1975) from Contemporary African Art Collection by Jean Pigozzi.

These photographs speak of ‘Okhai-Ojeikere’s own engagement with his cultural context, but moreover are a traceable document of dress which weaves Western elements and materials but are underpinned by a thoroughly African aesthetic – one that remains popular today, reflecting the power of this distinctive form of ornamentation beyond the borders of Nigeria. In an article on the artist, curators Aura Seikkula and Bisi Silva argue that ‘engaging with these images enables an understanding of the way in which social and cultural transformations characterise Nigerian society and the subjectivity of its inhabitants’.1)

J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikeres series Hairstyles.

Sunday on London’s Kingsland Road in the East End witnesses a similar phenomenon of African women preened and coiffed to an extraordinary degree. This is only reinforced by an army of DIY Youtube tutorials online on how to carry such colourful architecture in a contemporary context. Often credited with popularising this hairstyle in a genre of gele stylists is Hakeem Oluwasegun Olaleye or, as he prefer to be known, Segun Gele, who has become the figurehead of the art of the woman’s gele. Showing the cultural power that dress contains, and how a distinctive style, way of dressing, and aesthetic, can transcend tradition, these hairstyles are a fascinating amalgamation of cultures that rises above technology in the Modern era.

Segun Gele works his magic (2010), image from CNN2)

  1. ‘Framing the Moment: The independent look of J. D.’Okhai Ojeikere’ by Aura Seikkula and Bisi Silva ( 

  2. ‘Segun Gele: Master of Nigeria’s Gravity-Defying Headgear’ by Misty Showalter (