Shaving Heads for Peace

Friday Afternoon Demonstration Sheds Locks, Protests War

Santa Barbara resident Holden Smith gets his head shaved by performance artist Genevieve Erin O'Brien on Friday in downtown Santa Barbara.
Paul Wellman

Jarring disbelief infused the air on Friday, as volunteer passersby lined up downtown to have their heads shaved for peace and onlookers watched the hairs fly and physical appearances change before their eyes. The event, titled “Peace Salon,” was a performance art piece intended to also serve as a demonstration against the war in Iraq, put on by visiting artist Genevieve Erin O’Brien. The “salon” was set up at the intersection of Anapamu and State streets, just outside the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

How does shaving one’s head become a protest of the war, one might ask? According to O’Brien, the project actually has multiple layers of meaning. She explained that =”for the participants it’s a reminder on a daily basis that they’re part of a larger movement.” Each time they are questioned, as they will inevitably be, about their new hairstyle, they will have the opportunity to explain their motives and to remind people about the war who may not be directly affected by it. The shaved heads call to mind the traditional soldiers’ haircut, intended to show solidarity with the troops in Iraq and communicate the intention to bring them home, according to a flyer distributed at the event. Finally, the artist likened the shearing of hair to a monk-like release of attachment to material things.

Santa Barbara resident Holden Smith prepares to get his head shaved by performance artist Genevieve Erin O'Brien on Friday in downtown Santa Barbara.
Paul Wellman

The Peace Salon drew a surprising number of “customers” interested in drastically changing their appearances to show their dedication to the cause of peace. By mid-afternoon O’Brien reported that she had shaved more than 10 heads and there were still more volunteers waiting their turn. “I’ve gotten a really wonderful response from people in Santa Barbara,” the Chicago-based artist commented.

One volunteer, longtime Santa Barbara resident Holden Smith, received his first haircut in years at the salon. “My hair is normally quite long,” he explained, motioning that his hair generally reaches midway down his back. “Getting it shaved like this is unprecedented.” Smith admitted that at first he was reluctant to cut it all off; having had long hair for so long, he agreed that it had become a part of his own identity. In the end, though, he couldn’t say no. “What changed my mind? Two things: the first is my agreement with this gesture and this purpose, and second this is only temporary. Hair grows back.” Smith said that he intends to grow his hair out again after this experience.

The idea for O’Brien’s performance piece sprang from another work that she was invited to perform on Thursday, November 8, at UCSB. In that show, the artist at one point shaved her own head on stage. She decided that it was the sort of experience that other people might benefit from having, and announced right then that she would be shaving people’s heads downtown the following day. For O’Brien, the child to a Vietnamese mother and an Irish-American father, artwork and politics have always gone hand in hand. She reported that because of her ethnicity, people often make political comments to her relating to the Vietnam War, and for this reason politics have always been a prominent subject for her. Her art, she explained, can function as a form of expression for her political ideas. “My art informs my politics and my politics informs my art.”


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