Yesterday DHL rolled up to the door with a long-awaited package from Benin--some gifts for our upcoming exhibition. Inside were two wigs, a bit sad from the shipping process, but quickly returned to a happier state. The wigs are a shortcut to the okuku style, the coiffure the queens (iloi) wear every day in the palace, with their natural hair. The Oba permits favored chiefs to allow their wives to wear the style, too, and Benin brides often wear it on their traditional wedding day. For brides and chiefs' wives, the style is a rare one--special occasions only.
Stylists come to the house and create a beehive over padding, adding curving braids and coral beads. It's hard to sleep on, so women often get up very early in the day so the hairdresser can perfect the okuku. Some women find wigs an easier alternative, and fake coral is certainly more economical--though any Benin woman can spot even a good fake and dismiss it for the sham it is.
My wigs are replete with the fakes, but they're pretty impressive, for they have the white veins and pocking of real coral. I wonder where the plastic factory that makes them is located--in Nigeria? China? Are they sold anywhere else? Changing specialized markets fascinate me--China is now competing with Switzerland and Austria for the Nigerian "lace" market, but India still rules the "george" market.