From the Red Center to Arnhem Land, Mel Balkan covers thousands of kilometers in Australia to coach young Aboriginals on the art of hairdressing. Sure, her mission is to teach them cutting and coloring techniques, but it is also, if not more, to elicit creativity and uniqueness among the communities, and to share, learn and work together to support social cohesion.
Fashion Week Down Under
Warburton, July 2016, an exceptional Fashion Week is announced. Considering that Warburton is one of the most remote Aboriginal settlements in Australia, the news is somewhat astonishing. To get there, it takes driving over 1,000 kilometers from Alice Springs on a red and scorching sand road. In the middle of the desert, the 720 residents speak Ngaanyatjarra, a local language, and are shaped by ancestral cultural traditions. There, landscape, climate and life conditions are extreme. In Warburton, the average life expectancy doesn’t exceed 48 years.
Several times a year, Melbourne hairdresser Mel Balkan visits this region. She believes in hairdressing “being used as a tool to create change, bringing about hygiene, inclusion and meaningful cross-cultural engagement.” These training sessions are a way for young women and men to gain skills and fit in with their environment. “I’m helping them learn hairdressing to help and look after each other. For the community, this program is about pride, meaning and engagement,” explains Mel.
“Team” is the theme of this year’s Fashion Week. The website of the local arts and cultural organization, Wilurarra Creative, has a strong statement to go with it: “Fashion Week celebrates people being together, and looking and feeling good. Fashion and performance are joyful and playful ways to explore cultures, gender, relationships and pride.”
Women have fun taking graceful poses in electric blue dresses, with their wavy manes and blueberry-colored locks, while men exhibit designs shaved into their hair.
Cultural mediator Kate Fielding created this program when she decided in 2008 to spend three and a half years in Warburton to work in collaboration with Wilurarra Creative. Kate started a hairdressing salon with the aim of promoting well-being, self-confidence, cross-cultural dialogue and self-esteem. And today? Mission accomplished.
From their ancient traditions, Aboriginals have inherited a predisposition to the art of hairdressing. In the past, women used to adorn their hair with flowers or eucalyptus nuts and to condition it with emu oil. Ochre or charcoal were natural hair dyes. Nowadays, when a relative passes away, some women cut their hair in a sign of mourning. In the community of Warburton, the youth are not shy about their interest in this salon nestled inside the organization’s offices. In an upbeat atmosphere, after repelling one or two stray dogs attracted by the sudden bustle, they learn to style and curl hair or play with blond highlights and auburn hues.
Eager to keep away from paternalistic or charity relationships, Kate and Mel work in line with the population and keep in mind their concrete purpose of a two-way exchange. In Australia, negative prejudices towards Aboriginals, such as alcoholism or delinquency, are in plentiful supply.
“Outback Australia is a mystery to many Australians,” explains Kate, “and people are often quite scared of the complex challenges it presents. I do believe in an intercultural future for remote Australia.” Mel tells how she has been completely seduced by the life of the people in Warburton. “It has become a priority for me. I always feel like I’m learning more than I’m teaching. Aboriginal culture is unique, deep and sophisticated. I feel privileged to learn something new about its culture each time.”
Universal Lesson Of Humanity
From this experience was born the concept of “Social Change Hairdressing”. It’s in this context that Kate’s action was rewarded and that she got the opportunity, in 2012, to travel the world to discover similar enterprises.
This is how she met, in France and in South Africa, the L’Oréal Foundation with their program “Hairdressers against AIDS“ and a training institute for disadvantaged young women. In England, she learnt about the Open Barbers‘ transgender salon, and in the US, the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health addressing conditions that disproportionately affect minorities. She also observed the United Nations’s program that gives a chance to civilians caught in humanitarian crises or in refugee camps to launch their own hairdressing salon. In the report Kate drew up from this year of traveling, she asserts that hairdressers and barbers are a powerful tool when it comes to social change. “My research confirmed that salon and barbershop spaces are highly conducive to the development of many of the conditions other social change programs need to succeed, including trust, repeat engagement, person-to-person relationships and exchange.”
Her conclusion, one that should spark a bit of reflection, is the following: “For me, the unifying message of these accounts was the importance of being treated ‘like a human’.”