To make this work, Simpson photographed a variety of wigs—from long braids to waves to moustaches—that she had purchased at Fulton Mall in Brooklyn. She then lithographed the images on felt and incorporated small text panels that relate historical accounts and anecdotes ranging in topic from slavery to drag. As the artist explained: “The wearer of the wigs can either become someone else or become closer to the person that one sees oneself to be . . . embracing or cutting across a particular stereotype, or, in terms of gender, blurring the lines between masculinity and femininity.”
Gallery label from 2022
Among the subjects of Simpson's art is the experience of African American women in contemporary American society, a topic that encompasses issues of race and gender. Since 1990 African American hairstyles, which, over the centuries, have taken on social and political implications, have been some of her motifs. Depicted here is a diverse group of wigs in an orderly presentation that suggests a lineup of scientific specimens. Many types of styles are represented, from the short, fuzzy-textured Afro at the upper left to a wig of long, silky blond hair near the upper right. Text panels interspersed among the wigs record Simpson's wide-ranging commentary on their use by women, entertainers, and transvestites. The wig's potential as an instrument for conformity, metamorphosis, and concealment is thereby underscored.
Simpson has used the traditional format of the print portfolio in which a sequence of images produces a cumulative, narrative effect. The images have a tactile, suggestive quality as they isolate hair as an important aspect of self-image that affects a deeper sense of overall reality.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 334.
Wigs is a collection of hair pieces, depicting everything from Afros and braided hair to blond locks and doll wigs. The twenty-one panels of wigs and seventeen smaller text panels are printed on felt—itself a material with hair-like texture. Affixed to the wall with pins, the images and text look like scientific specimens.
Simpson’s work often investigates the history of African American hairstyles and conventions of beauty. From stigma against black hairstyles to reclaiming natural hair as a sign of black empowerment, hair has taken on a variety of social and political implications. The texts range from shorter, cryptic phrases to longer anecdotes alluding to slavery, entertainment, and drag. Through the texts and images, Simpson refers to the body without including it, inviting the viewer to create narratives about who might wear these hairpieces.