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Simon Skinner had trouble finding an afro pick in Stockholm, so the Afro-Swedish designer made his own set.
“I wanted to investigate how migration and multiculturalism is changing Swedish identity,” Skinner explained to Hyperallergic over email. “The afro comb is a symbol for Black power and it represents a part of Black culture.”
The recently-graduated Konstfack University student sought to disrupt perceptions of Scandinavian design as homogenous and white. In Stockholm, where the designer is based, 27 percent of the city’s population comes from an immigrant or non-Swedish background. The largest ethnic minorities hail from countries like Finland, Iraq, Iran, Bosnia, and Turkey. By comparison, the Black population is relatively small, mostly consisting of groups from East Africa.
In a country that prides itself on liberality and tolerance, people of color have faced a surfeit of racism in the last decade. Sweden has seen police drag a pregnant Black woman from a subway train, public officials jeering at blackface, and a racially-motivated shooting spree that killed two and left thirteen others wounded.
“Behind each comb is a story,” Skinner said. Having Swedish and Caribbean roots, the designer wanted to look at the “in-betweenness” of social constructs. After interviewing other Afro-Swedish individuals about their perspectives on national identity, he set about designing eight unique afro picks. Accordingly, the combs combine story, function, and aesthetic into material form. Skinner used laser cutting, casting, and 3D-printed aluminum to diversify the look of each object. Functional objects created out of a desire to physicalize a call for collective identity, the series, simply titled Afropicks, pulls on the fragile strings of Swedish culture and changing demographics.
The project has certainly resonated with audiences at home and abroad. Earlier this year, Skinner’s work won him the prestigious Ung Svensk Form, Sweden’s national award for young designers; a few weeks ago, the afro picks were on display at Milan Design Week in an exhibition produced by Swedish Design Moves. Excerpts from Afropicks are below:
“Growing up predominantly in a ‘white’ neighborhood, I used to relax my hair to fit in and look like my mates. Today as a teacher, I want to look my authentic self and inspire my students to embrace their natural looks.”
“Miliona is a term for a million,” the designer explained. “She told me that she was one in a million, so writing her name in numbers was a given when we realized that it also spoke for diversity among Black identities.” Skinner says that the afro pick is constructed partially from afro hair, preserving the strands as decorative elements in a statement on Black beauty.
“I named my skin tone Caramel Macchiato after my favorite drink at Starbucks in an attempt to transcend my heritage and to just be me. As a result of experiencing racial prejudices from white as well as black people, I want to dedicate my comb to the mixed-race folks. Most importantly, I would like the comb to help people look and feel beautiful.”
The comb represents Jacqueline’s mixed-race heritage. “She wanted a pink comb so I added a pink dot with a petrol surface in the handle,” Skinner said. “The shifting colors were something we both felt a deeper connection to in terms of identity.” He says the afro pick is designed with longer teeth to enable smoother motion through the hair.
“As a hairstylist I feel compelled to inspire my clients to treat their afro hair with great care. I addressed afro hair care in my latest project; Att äga sitt afro. Different types of hair and hairstyles require different combs. I would like to see a comb with extra wide teeth, to replace the most useful comb I own — my fingers.”
Even though afro hair is thick, it’s also fragile. Skinner chose to exaggerate his design based on Alexandra’s words, designing the pick to resemble a hand with five fingers and acrylic nails.
“Drawing experience from various parts of the world it is possible to develop an alluring complexity regardless of heritage. I am both in Sweden, have a mixed background with influences from Nigeria, Norrland, and Germany coupled with Christian and Jewish religious beliefs, yet I identify the most with the term ‘Stockholmare’.”
Although Femi was born in Sweden and has roots in Nigeria, he feels more authentic identifying as a Stockholmer. To honor that detail, Skinner appropriated visual elements from the city’s subway system. “The wavy teeth stand for independence, something I believe Fem stands for as well,” the designer said.
“My whole life I have idolized individuals who have achieved greatness. Today, others would describe me as a successful entrepreneur, however, I don’t feel truly content as I don’t have a clear vision. Perhaps that’s my next goal. If I could choose one, I would like an embellished comb to remind me of the faux Rolex I wore in my pursuit of success.”
“Anton is adopted and he expressed that he was tired of discussing his identity in relation to that,” Skinner said. Because he wanted something reminiscent of his fake Rolex watch, the comb is embellished with a single, small diamond in the handle to provide a sense of luxury.
“Growing up as a mixed-race political activist with parents from Sweden and Ethiopia, I was expected to experience different cultures and nationalities. However, identifying with my Swedish side more, I found it rather difficult.”
The comb Skinner designed for Mille is actually a set of three: large, medium, and small. The engraved pattern can only be completed with a composition where each comb is placed on the top of each other. “He felt misunderstood. This pattern is inspired by traditional Ethiopian patterns, framed in geometrical shapes that refer to functional aesthetics,” said Skinner. “This refers to the complex layers of existing within all of us. You might need more than one layer before you judge someone.”
“My father is Gambian and very proud of his African roots. Throughout the years he told us stories about our relatives and life before slavery in Africa. In retrospect, these stories left a mark on my siblings and I, made us feel comfortable and strong in our skin, heritage, and surname.”
Although Bintou felt a close connection to Gambian designs, she also expressed an affinity for Scandinavian trends. This is something Skinner could relate to: “a feeling of not belonging to what you are part of. I wanted to claim our part in society.” Subsequently, he designed the pick to combine vibrant colors and patterns with a sleek, slightly curved shape. Because of her family history, Bintou’s last name, Sonko, is engraved into the comb.
“Fuck it, why should one tone it down just to satisfy others. Sometimes one should be allowed to be vivacious without receiving racial judgment from the general public.”
Jade’s interest in fashion influenced the design of this comb, which Skinner designed to become an accessory to her overall style. “I chose to put her name in focus and sized it up in order to communicate that expressive attitude.”