Victoria Pass, assistant professor of Art History at Maryland Institute College of Art, traces the way that a photograph of a Mangbetu woman named Nobosodrou, taken by George Specht in 1924, has influenced fashion designers from that moment through the present. By far the most famous image to emerge from La Croisière Noire (The Black Crossing), an expedition across the Sahara sponsored by French automobile maker Citroën, the photograph circulated in a diverse array of media throughout the 1920s and 1930s: books, postcards, posters, sculpture, and most curiously, fashion. While it served in certain contexts as evidence of what many European explorers had identified as the Mangbetu people’s advanced and hierarchical society, eventually the publicity for the expedition, including an accompanying film, became a brand identity, first for Citroën and La Croisière Noire, and later for Belgian Colonialism at the 1931 Colonial Exposition in Paris.
In the 1920s and 1930s Nobosodru was chosen as an icon of Afrocentric beauty by Harlem Renaissance graphic designer Aaron Douglas, and as an icon representing the perceived exoticism of Africa by milliner Mme Agnès and a number of other fashion designers. Assigned multiple significations in a complex network of art deco aesthetics, black beauty, and fashionable modernity, the coiffeur has continued to resonate with artists and designers, appropriated by Yves Saint Laurent in 1967, Thierry Mugler in 1988, and John Galliano for Dior in 2009. But while often used in the context of generic evocations of Africa in European fashion, the hairstyle occasionally has been used in a more nuanced fashion. Most recently Nobosodru’s hairstyle has appeared on the heads of Beyoncé and Angela Basset in the context of Afrofuturist aesthetics in Lemonade (2016) and The Black Panther (2018), respectively. While Nobosodru’s image has often been used in reductive and damaging colonialist ways, it has also been reclaimed by African American creatives and used as an expression of African history and black beauty.
By examining the life of this single image in design culture we can understand what makes it so appealing to certain audiences, and how its meaning can change over time and in different contexts, thus helping to complicate narratives