Milena Berestko ’22 gives ‘energy back to the earth’ in performance art piece ‘Transfer of Power’

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Milena Berestko ’22 allowed audience members to cut off and bury strands of her hair in a performance last Friday. (Photo courtesy of Milena Berestko ’22)

Tanushree Sow Mondal

Milena Berestko ’22 has long felt that her hair governed others’ perceptions of her. This past Friday, she let go of this constraint by inviting the Lafayette and greater Easton community to cut her hair in a performance entitled “Transfer of Power.”

As audience members entered the serene courtyard of the Connexions Art Gallery, they were instructed to cut a strand of Berestko’s hair using a pair of scissors placed beside her, all while maintaining eye contact with a calm, still Berestko. They were then given ziplock bags to place the hair in and asked to bury it whenever they were ready to let go, transferring her energy back to the earth.

In an interview, Berestko said that growing up, people’s perception of her had often been limited to the label of a white girl with an accent and beautiful, long hair.

“People would always comment on how beautiful my curls were. They weren’t always seeing me as a person but a child with long hair,” Berestko explained. “In middle school and high school, I felt many times that I was looked at but not seen. I was perceived by the way I looked, but not perceived through my intellect.”

Berestko added that Polish culture views long hair as a beauty attribute. In her culture, hair was seen as a defining feature of her femininity and beauty, another notion that she wanted to challenge.

“Over the years, I would realize how much importance people assign to hair in general, and how much importance people assign to my hair as connected to my image,” Berestko said.

“I felt all the descriptions weren’t encompassing who I am. I cannot change my accent. I cannot change where I’m from. I’m European, I’m from Poland. There was one thing I could change,” Berestko said on cutting her hair. “I was very curious to see how people would perceive me, and how I would perceive myself.”

However, Berestko did not want to just cut her hair the traditional way and “give away [her] power to an outside source.” Keeping in mind the significance of hair in many cultures, she wanted to truly give it away to people and allow them to see her power.

The performance was initially planned for a venue on Lafayette’s campus last fall. However, COVID-19 restrictions did not allow for a performance requiring close contact between the performer and her audience until this year.

Berestko’s inspiration was a performance by Yoko Ono, where audience members came on stage and cut off pieces of her clothing. She realized the similarity between Ono’s performance and her own only when she was structuring her own performance.

One of Berestko’s main fears prior to the performance was the uncertainty of how people would act. 

“I had scissors. If someone wanted to stab me, they could stab me. If someone wanted to cut my hair very short to my scalp so there’s a patch of skin, they could do that,” Berestko explained.

“Brandon [Marin ’22, who was recording the event] asked me what happens if someone really does something. I told him the rule is that until 8 p.m., he cannot do anything because I had been thinking so much about the performance that if I attend to myself, then I’m seeing myself as just Milena and not the performer,” she said.

However, to her surprise, her performance left many moved and speechless. Some of her audiences were bowing or performing other cultural gestures of respect, while others stood in silence and observed her.

“There were people who cut a lot and those who cut very little. There was one participant, in particular, who cut a single piece of hair. He put it in a bag and he was just looking up through it, to the light,” Berestko recalled.

“There was a couple that came—the man looked me in the eye and left, and the woman did the same thing and also knelt next to me and left. Then they came back, and she cut my hair. All of it was so wholesome and made me happy,” she said.

“I felt so calm. It was like a beautiful meditation for me. I was just sitting down in warrior pose for an hour and a half, not talking at all,” Berestko said. “I was just allowing people to come and cut my hair, in silence. You could hear the birds chirping. It was beautiful. The sound of scissors moving and cutting of hair was so calming to me.”