Yarima Ariza has been getting unwanted attention for her unruly tresses since she was a teenager in Bogota. Her school was a strict French institution, and girls weren’t allowed to wear makeup or jewelry. “In 1986 the perm came to Colombia and girls started wearing them,” says Ariza. “The director of the school started calling them bad names like ‘fatal woman’ because they were doing something artificial to their bodies. He didn’t know if I was wearing one or not, but he would punish me anyway. He used to pull my hair and scream at me in his French accent in front of everybody.”

Ariza and her mother decided that she should wear her hair pulled back, and Ariza didn’t let it down again until 1994, after she’d moved here and started classes at the School of the Art Institute. “People started telling me that I had beautiful hair. I felt insulted at the beginning, but then I started playing with it and braiding it and enjoying it. I started accepting myself the way I am.” Ariza has never cut her hair and has visited a beauty salon exactly once–to get her hair done for her aunt’s wedding. “The guy who did my hair spent three or four hours trying to straighten it,” she says. “He was taking breaks to smoke, and his hair dryer broke in the middle of it. I could see him sweating and I’m like, ‘What’s wrong?’ He said he would never do my hair again.”

During the past year Ariza has been toying with the idea of shaving her head. “People were scandalized when they heard I wanted to do it,” she says. “So I started doing research on hair and became fascinated with everything about it. In the Victorian era they used to carry hair jewelry made from loved ones rather than photographs. It was a more real part of somebody–not just a two-dimensional image.”

Ariza’s thesis installation at Columbia College, “Certificate of Presence,” was influenced by mail art from the Fluxus movement of the 1960s. She created a two-part postcard to send to 400 friends and strangers, asking them to mail her a lock of hair.

On one side she printed close-up photos of the hair on her head, eyebrow, arm, armpit, pubis, and leg, as well as the top of her head and a handful of hair from a brush. She included space for the recipients to write their names, the date of their last haircuts, and comments about their hair. “I had them handwrite it,” says Ariza, “Writing makes my project a more personal, international experience. I can see their handwriting. I can enjoy the color of the ink. It’s more realistic than anything else.”

So far she’s received 159 responses, including some with elaborately painted envelopes and a few stamped “Return to Sender.” One respondent sent a large bag of hair and wrote, “As per your instructions, I’ve cut off all my hair.” An acquaintance Ariza hasn’t seen in a few years forwarded a clump of hair she’d lost during chemotherapy. Her mother, who’s “petrified” at the prospect of having a bald daughter, wrote a six-page “book” on napkins in a restaurant. Her father wrote a short history of hair. Another woman, who Ariza thinks may be incarcerated, sent a poem and a dreadlock–“a symbol of freedom”–in an envelope that bore no stamp or return address. A few sent their dogs’ hair, and an artist sent paper made from her hair. A friend in Colombia sent a lock from her daughter. Ariza says, “I didn’t know she’d had a baby.”

This week Ariza plans to have her hair divided into more than 100 twists and get Mendhi tattoos on her hands and feet. “Since I moved to Chicago, everyone thinks I’m from India,” she says. At Friday’s opening reception for “Certificate of Presence,” Ariza will cut off her twists and offer them to people who’ve participated in her project. “I had 400 people from around the world cutting their hair for me, and so now I feel like I have to do something in return–to give part of me to them.”

Ariza will conduct her “Hairy Event” from 5 to 8 on Friday at Columbia College’s Center for Book and Paper Arts, 218 S. Wabash, seventh floor. Five other degree candidates from the program will also present their work, which will be displayed until June 25. It’s free; for more information, call 312-431-8612.

–Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Xavier Bonilla.