Know Your Roots had two key elements. The first involved young women working with staff at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) to interrogate a series of selected images to discern how people of the African Diaspora have been represented over different periods in London’s history. Participants were invited to share what factors may have influenced the way the hair of the subjects was styled. Groups then created their own photographs reflecting how they wish to be represented in 2018. Mini peer-led interviews were also conducted where the young women discussed the links for them between their hair and heritage.

The second element of Know Your Roots involved using photography, film and visual art as the stimuli to create counter-narratives to belief systems that suggest that afro hair is inferior to other hair types. Participants drew inspiration from artists such as Lina Iris Victor and Carol Rossetti to produce their own pieces celebrating the beauty of black hair. Know Your Roots was targeted at 11 to 25-year olds from over 8 schools and youth projects in North and West London. These included: Sion Manning Roman Catholic Girls’ School, Epic CIC Flashpoint Centre Play, Youth Action Alliance/Unity Centre and Masbro Youth Centre. We also ran day events at Guildhall, City of London, UCL Academy and a mini session at Little Wormwood Scrubs. This initiative was also supported by 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, Museum of London and generously funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.


There was a specific focus on the experiences of young women of the African Diaspora, who are also from the UK. This project is based on evidence that strongly suggests that second to skin colour black hair has been racialised and therefore, become a marker of racial difference (Mercer, 1987). Black hair worn in its natural state; without any chemical treatment, has been problematised for centuries and many women still feel compelled to manipulate their natural hair from kinky to straight with products, or cover their own hair with wigs or extensions. Feeling that one must constantly ‘correct’ ‘bad hair’ impacts self-esteem and is challenging to sustain financially. Using chemicals on hair can damage its structure and carries significant health risks (Patton-Owens, 2006).

The project placed young black women’s lived experience at the heart of the work to build confidence; reinforce a strong sense of racial identity, challenge dominant ideologies on the theme of beauty and raise awareness about the complex and sometimes nuanced ways that racial oppression presents itself.

The intention of the work was not to convince any particular audience that afro hair is beautiful, and everyone must love it, but rather to highlight that a healthy sense of self-worth is dependent on how one sees one’s self and how one is viewed by others. As human beings, we generally seek our identities to be validated by the people around us (Bucholtz, 2002). Further to this, it is important to see one’s self reflected in the world to engender a sense of rootedness and belonging.

Know Your Roots was about celebrating the virtues of an aspect of black identity, in this case the unique characteristics of black hair and illuminating messaging to all young people that they are entitled to take their place in society as their authentic selves, without shame or apology.

The project was open to any young person who wanted to participate, irrespective of race or gender. However, putting young black women’s experiences at the centre of the work was a fundamental premise.

We wanted to:

  • Highlight how the media and other public platforms feed off the idea that our bodies should constantly be ‘worked on’ to improve them and social media is a major funnel for siphoning ideas about how to make us more popular, attractive, desirable etc (Bourdieu, 1997).
  • Encourage young people to recognise how this aspect of the media operates and encourage them to be questioning of the all-pervasive messaging they are subjected to.
  • Support participants to be more proactive in cultivating their own identities, drawing on trusted networks of people for guidance, such as family and friendship groups, rather than relying on virtual communication platforms for affirmation.



Participating Groups

Flashpoint Play Group (Epic CIC)


Youth Action Alliance/Unity Centre

Sion Manning School

UCL Academy

London Metropolitan Archives

198 Gallery

Project Director

Sandra Vacciana


Sandra Vacciana

Juliet Agyemang

Ilaria Di Fiore

Stephanie Johnson

Kareen Williams

Maureen Roberts

Daniella Dawkins

Tanya Cole-Edwards

Russell John Haynes

Kathryn Makatin

Adisa Stevens

Paula Mendonca


Juliet Agyemang

Antonia Peña

Project Coordination and Administrative Support

Rianne Williams

Zoe Nation

Naomi Emmanuel

Matthew Walsham