Some people embrace change and caterer Fana Chisolm—who first started as a hairstylist and expert barber—is definitely one of them.
She remembers always being a creative artist and expressing herself uniquely, starting with her attire. The first time Chisolm braided someone’s hair and enhanced a person’s appearance was under the guidance of her grandmother, a cosmetologist in Lexington, Kentucky.
“I started creating hair as an art form. We brought a particular hair braiding here and to the East Coast that involved beads,” Chisolm said about her unmistakable brand of hair braiding she calls “creative, ancestral braiding that is creatively inspired beyond labels.”
“I came here when I was about 18 or 19 years old in 1979,” the native of Kentucky, now 64, recalled while sitting in her Anacostia home where she has lived for the past eigtht years. The svelte sexagenarian, who appears 20 years younger, walks and runs five to 10 miles daily.
The History of Braiding
According to the book written by Ayana Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, entitled Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, various ethnic groups throughout Africa had unique braiding styles to set them apart—from warriors and kings in Ethiopia to young women coming of age in West Africa.
The authors emphasize that slave traders immediately shaved the heads of their African captors for supposed sanitary reasons, but this also eradicated elements of their culture.
Chisolm has visited Dakar, Senegal, and West Africa four times since 1983. She has led tours and small braiding groups to the “Motherland” to study the authentic culture.
Start in Blue Grass and End in the Land of Go-Go
Born into an extended family, Chisolm lived with her grandmother, multiple cousins, and a younger sister. She excelled in her studies and graduated high school in 1976 at 16. A few weeks later, she accepted an invitation from her Aunt Jean to visit her in Los Angeles. While there Chisolm met Nawili Ayo, an expert hair braider who became her braiding mentor and asked Chisolm to embark with her, another stylist, and Ayo’s son on a hair tour through Wisconsin, Chicago, Kentucky, and Washington, D.C.
The Harambe African Café, a once popular U Street venue, was the site of her first hair show. Chisolm has had the honor of styling the hair of such celebrities as Stevie Wonder, his daughter Aisha Morris, Angela Bassett, and at least one member from the groups Atlantic Starr, Starpoint, and Sweet Honey in the Rock.
“I consider Fana an important stylist and heritage artist. Her [overall] work is distinctive,” said Dr. Diana Baird N’Diaye, the Senior Curator and founder of the African American Craft Initiative at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage who has had her hair styled by Chisholm on more than one occasion.
“She is the whole Afrocentric package. What people get from her is not only braiding but also a master barber and very much an artist. Fana is now doing installation art by using her skills on trees and plant life,” said N’Diaye, a respected writer and folklorist in her own right, who was the Program Analyst at the New York State Council on the Arts and is “honored to be considered [Fana’s] mentor.”
The multifaceted artist chose to branch out further after perfecting her braiding technique. She began taking classes in 1986 to learn how to barber at the now-closed Armstrong Adult Education Center under the tutelage of Derrick Davis, the owner of Davis Barbershop on Livingstone Road in Southeast DC.
Chisolm acquired her master’s barbering license after completing a comprehensive test at the then John A. Chamberlain Vocational School. She owned a unisex salon called the Fine Art of Braiding & Barbering—nicknamed FABB—on Georgia Avenue.
After living in New York City for more than a decade, Chisolm came back to D.C. full-time to go to culinary school and graduated from Prince George’s County Community College. She is a long-time vegetarian, but cooks for all palates. She specializes in vegan meals like kale salad with chickpeas or carrot beet salad made from the pulp of fresh carrot juice.
She is most known for her healthy juices like Hibiscus/Sorrell with Ginger, Sea Moss with Pineapple and Ginger, and Watermelon Citrus with Ginger and Beet. She has more than 100 unique juices in her repertoire. She has collaborated on occasion with long-time friend and fellow caterer Lamont Mitchell.
“I met her at Union Temple about 40 years ago. She is an avid walker and a really great cook and vegan chef. She worked as a sous-chef at Wegmans [in the Woodmore Towne Centre] before catering,” said Mitchell, a semi-retired caterer.
“Fana is special and uplifts everyone, but especially the people East of the River!”
To reach Fana Chisolm for catering, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 646-912-1463,