|Woven tapestry by Daniel Edwards, part of the Beardo exhibition.|
The beard. Men can grow them, some women can too. However there is something powerful, seductive and mysterious about the beard. It is a sign of manhood, where a man can grow a flowing and full beard proudly but those whose beards are sparse and patchy are often looked down upon. The beard is one way that men can express their individuality and personality. It is an extension of who they are and in many ways can define their look.
The beard has proudly been on the face of men for thousands of years. It has many connotations from the cultural and religious meanings of the Sikhs or orthodox Jews, to more popular culture associations such as musicians ZZ top or Ned Kelly. I still firmly believe that Australian cricketers played better when they sported facial hair. They were tougher and more aggressive than their 'metrosexual' counterparts who are more concerned with highlighting their hair and manicures than playing cricket!
The beard conjures many images. From a sinister man who is hiding something, to the hobo who hasn't any means to shave. There's the aristocrat who in his dandy clothes, preens his beard to become a fashion accessory, which is seen in some of Dave Mead's Magnificent Specimen photographs. There are the iconic beards such as that of Abraham Lincoln, who didn't have a beard all of his life but it is the image of the bearded Lincoln that we best remember.
In gay culture, the Bear is LGBT slang for those in bear communities and subcultures. The bears tend to be hairy and don facial hair and present a hyper masculine image to the rest of society. In this case, the beard is a strong symbol of their culture and how they wish to be perceived.
Within the Beardo exhibition, we see female artists explore the idea of the 'pants beard' and the 'lady beard', both slang for female pubic hair. While men wear their beards with pride, society pushes women to become hair free. In recent years there have been trends to dye and shape pubic hair almost as topiary. This trend first started on European catwalks, with fashion product companies soon following as another way of selling absurd products to their female consumers. Artists BESTFIEND and duo Katie Jacobs and Brittany Veitch, playfully tackle these ideas within their works in an attempt for women to embrace their natural bodies, whilst poking fun at popular culture.
While most women will never know the experience of growing a beard, artist Zoe Steers and writer Laura Smith explore the notion of time and beard growing in their installation Nest. The embroidery hoops hold various hair like materials that form beards. These beards will grow throughout the exhibition, like they would in real life, whilst being filmed and photographed throughout the time period.
This style of time lapse, documentary style photography of beard growing isn't a new thing. Website Whiskerino (www.whiskerino.org) encourages men to shave clean on the 1st of November and let their beards grow until the 28th February. Participants share their stories and photographs of their beards weekly to see how others progress is going. The Whiskerino website states: "Let us return to our roots! Let us return to true masculinity! Let us cry out with one voice: I WILL HAVE A BEARD!! I WILL BE A MAN!! I WILL NOT CONFORM TO YOUR RULES!"
This idea of the beard becoming a symbol of non-conformity can be seen in Josh Rufford's works. His character is a free-spirited, surfie dude who drinks beer and seems to do whatever he likes. Naturally his wild beard, expresses this freedom.
As curator of Beardo, this exhibition always intended to showcases beards from the Town Hall Gallery Collection as well as works from a young breed of contemporary artists who use the beard as a symbol to express masculinity, sexuality, consumerism and folklore. Inspired by the many portrait works held in the Town Hall Gallery Collection that feature some impressive facial hair, I started to notice the resurgence of beards and questioned why people had returned to the beard in both art and fashion.
Is it a new fashion? Is it a backlash to the metrosexual male? Are they just expressing non-conformity? Whatever the reasons are for the return of the beard, Beardo offers you a taste of some of the extremes, passions and stories behind the beard.
Essay by Mardi Nowak, November 2010.