Rococoa and the Frivolous Fro

Let’s take a look at the fro. Hair – or lack thereof – tells a story. Mostly, a story about ourselves. It serves as an indicator of our personality, social class and even sense of purpose. Now the fro. It is malleable, pliable, moldable. It appears in a variety of forms and textures which you can add or subtract to take on a new form. So why suppress it?

In this present time, we have “natural hair” movements popping up around the globe. People who previously chemically processed their hair – as dictated by societal norms – carve a space for those confined to concealing the curl. So, in keeping with the liberated fro, let’s take a walk through Rococoa.

A twist on the Rococo period, Rococoa is a term coined by Chronicles of Harriet, hub of Steamfunk, Dieselfunk and motor of underground Afrofuturist movements/subcultures. They explain how while France, Portugal, Britain and Spain held costume balls, engaging in lighthearted festivities which took place primarily indoors, African and Caribbean celebrations were held largely outdoors [1]. The author mentions:

“One of the clearest examples of the masquerade in Africa is the Yoruba Egungun Festival. During this festival, every family honors its collective ancestors, and all the members of an extended family lineage wear the same colors, thus constituting a “band”.

[…] The ancestral spirits of the Yoruba are much more than just dead relatives, they play an active role in the daily life of the living. Believed to provide protection and guidance, there are numerous ways the ancestors communicate with the living, one of the most unique is their manifestation on earth in the form of masked spirits known as Egungun.”

They go on to state their mission…

“Nowadays, two major, annual Masquerades, which display and extol the beauty of Black Speculative Art and Fiction, bring together elements from the grand masked celebrations around the globe to bring you the best in Black cosplay.”

Note the fusion going on here. The two clash, yet correlate with the bold act of honoring one’s ancestors while engaging in unapologetic self-indulgence. For those of African blood, this represents more than meets the eye. Beyond cosplay and conventions, this is self-liberation. The Carnaval Antillais which takes place in multiple locations in France is an example of bonding, a show of collective strength through the celebration of life and togetherness.

Why Rococo?

Freedom through frivolity, the French movement was known for its blatant vapidity. Derived from the term “rocaille”, which signifies ornamentation in stone or rock, Rococo flourished in the early and mid-18th century as sovereignty migrated towards Paris under Louis XV, rejecting the strict lifestyle set under Louis XIV, until dying out in 1789 after the French Revolution. Architecturally, sinuous shapes were preferred. Paintings often depicted lighthearted situations through soft, pastel tones, sheltered between gold, curvaceous frames. Rosy cheeks, carefree looks with a hint of child-like mischief, such as with Jean Honoré Fragonard or Jean-Marc Nattier, were preferred.

L’Escarpolette, 1766, Jean-Honoré Fragonard

The daily stress experienced by the oppressed causes a turn to entertainment used as a temporary escape from the all too real. Mass-media being aware of this, minorities are targeted, often portrayed in unflattering ways. Easily embedded in the subconscious, media influences through film, music, social media and even popular literature. The effects of positive portrayals in said mediums, even within niche groups (such as Steamfunk), make more of an impact than imagined.

Redefining Royalty

“The media have been described as a system of radicalization that defines race and ethnicity; for example, by portraying African-American women as nameless sex objects in music videos (Littlefield, 2008). Those images perpetuate a “new racism” in a society that believes that the problem of racism has been solved even as the sexualized images allow viewers to blame the victims of teen pregnancy and unwed mothers who are enduring consequences of the “old racism”.

[…] Minorities have a difficult time obtaining financing, which is a barrier to minority ownership in broadcasting (Braunstein, 2000); that reduces competition for white-owned media outlets serving minority communities. – Media Now: Understanding media, culture and technology [2]

With control over one’s own media, it becomes possible to set standards. According to Business Insider UK [3], 2016 statistics say the United-States has produced the top 10 grossing movies of all time, nine of the 15 best-selling musical artists of all time and 7 of the top 10 biggest websites on the Internet. Although this article paints these charts in a good light, they are alarming. This goes to show the influence the United-States has over audio-visual media such as film, advertisements, music videos and television series – all of which are targeted primarily to lower class people – on an International scale. If minorities are painted in a bad light, this affects a huge portion of the world’s population.

Rococoa uses textual mediums to create an alternate universe where revolts take the form of fantastic adventures. Literature, art and music lead dress and roleplay in the reenactment of a romanticized past. Rococoa frequently crosses Steamfunk and Dieselfunk territories, all under the Afrofuturist hub. Romanticization serves to alleviate class struggles through fiction, putting oppressed people in a place of power. Utilizing Western ideals of nobility and royalty to liberate lower class people may seem contradictory, as those are the very ideals which oppress them. However, this appropriation of 18th century French idleness, vice and prioritization of pleasure over labor – all of which are negative class and racial stereotypes in modern media – are turned around. We must keep in mind that Rococo was reserved for royalty and representative of the ruling class. Here, Rococoa paints a picture of the reverse, luxury is constructed for the people, by the people. Living becomes a form of revolt.

François Boucher. La Marquise de Pompadour, 1756.

As vices of the 18th century are mimicked by those not in a position of privilege, the subculture becomes a parody, attributing more weight to its performance. Still, the key role is given to ancestry. Fabiola Jean-Louis’ work illustrates this perfectly in Marie-Antoinette is Dead, below, a spin on François Boucher’s La Marquise de Pompadour, above.

Fabiola Jean-Louis. Marie-Antoinette is Dead, 2016

A woman reclines on a chaise longue or canapé topped with a generous amount of pillows. She wraps her right arm around a black ragdoll resting on her lap, swimming in the bloated form of her dress. Her eyes are not empty. Jean-Louis’ subject stares deliberately at the viewer. Darker tones highlight her expression, one that commands respect. Deliberately opposing Boucher, established is a conversation between viewer and piece. She makes it clear that she is not there to sit pretty, but to stand her ground.

Honoring heritage is used as a means of power. The doll is representative of a past reclaimed; here, the woman takes control over her own story. The sticks, crystals and herbs to the right signal the presence of a higher energy, seemingly called upon by her. The book and quill in Boucher’s piece bring the “pen over sword” saying to mind. However, he depicts reading as a solitary act, unlike Jean-Louis who uses community as a tool. It is also worth pointing out the changes in hair. Jean-Louis portrays a woman with her natural hair, braided and formed into a coiffe similar to La Marquise de Pompadour. By affirming her being and taking control over her own representation, Jean Louis’ woman demands reverence. She is Royalty.

Adopting Rococoa

Why should we adopt Rococoa as a style and way of life in this modern age? Furthermore, is the subculture inclusive enough to be able to do so? As mentioned in the previous section, Redefining Royalty, the way of life Rococoa promotes is heavily based off of literature. The command of the Word is key to empowerment, be it spoken or written. The telling of stories then transforms into cosplay, roleplay and music. Because Rococoa is so closely tied to Steamfunk and Dieselfunk, there is a large source of literary and visual mediums to draw from. In this alternative culture media becomes a form of social advancement rather than a method to put down the population.

Like any subculture, there are a set of core values shared. In this case, we are talking about self-esteem, poise and command of the Word (language and dialect in harmony). Roleplay puts all of these values and mediums into action, creating the “Rococoa lifestyle”. The luxuries inspired from the French Rococo movement are not adaptable for working and lower-class people of today. Roleplay gives them a chance to express how equally worthy of these luxuries they are. This reinforces the core values mentioned above (self-esteem, poise and command of the Word) on an everyday basis. Of course, style is a significant part of the subculture. Roleplay uses elaborate costumes to reenact these historical adventures. A toned down version of this dress is possible for work and daily leisure. Although, if one is in a position to do so, fully dressing the part on a regular basis could promote confidence as well as make a strong statement. As we tend to function in survival mode, we must remind ourselves that what matters most is to have fun.

Rococoa exists to enjoy oneself, love others and stay strong… to learn how to live.

On a final note, Briaan L. Baron explains the concept of revisiting history through colourful lenses in Steamfunk & Rococoa: A Black Victorian Fantasy.

[1] Balogun. “Black Masquerades: Steamfunk, Dieselfunk and Rococoa step out for Black Speculative Fiction Month”. Chronicles of Harriet, July 5, 2013.

[2] Joseph Straubhaar, Robert LaRose, Lucinda Davenport. Media Now: Understanding Media, Culture and Technology. 10th ed. , Cengage Learning, 2016

[3] Andy Kiersz. “16 charts that show why America is the most amazing country in the world”. Business Insider UK, July 4, 2016.

Photo: Rewriting History: “The Crowning of Amina II” and “Amina’s Child”

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