SONYA CLARK, “Madam C. J. Walker,” 2008 (combs). | Collection of Blanton Museum of Art

 

THE BLANTON MUSEUM OF ART is reinstalling its permanent collection. When the second-floor gallery spaces reopen on Feb. 12, works by African American artists will be among the standout attractions. The collection exhibition features new acquisitions and holdings that have rarely or never been on view. “You Belong Here: Reimagining the Blanton” is named after a neon work by Tavares Strachan, a version of which was presented in New Orleans at “Prospect 3: Notes for Now,” floating on a barge in the Mississippi River.

Galleries addressing civil rights and social justice issues will be bolstered by a recent acquisition of 20 works by Charles White, including a major painting, “Homage to Sterling Brown” (1972), drawings and prints.

A new acquisition by Sonya Clark will also be on view. Her 2008 tapestry features a silhouetted image of Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919), the legendary entrepreneur and activist. It’s the first work depicting an African American woman to enter the museum’s collection. The purchase was a community effort spearheaded by Marilyn Johnson, a retired IBM executive.

JOHNSON BECAME A DOCENT at the University of Texas at Austin museum in 2012. She was serving as president of the local National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), when the museum approached the organization, inquiring whether any of its members would be interested in the docent program, according to KUT, Austin’s National Public Radio affiliate. She volunteered, but finding the representation of African American women artists lacking, saw an opportunity to contribute more.

She decided to give $5,000 to the Blanton Museum. Johnson told the institution she wanted to seed a fund to purchase an artwork by an African American woman to broaden the museum’s permanent collection. After collaborating with Veronica Roberts, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Blanton, they agreed Clark’s work was an ideal choice for acquisition.

Clark is chair of the Craft and Material Studies Department at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Richmond, Va. Her practice examines culture, identity, race and representation, primarily through the use of human hair, fiber replicating hair and related objects. The work acquired by the museum stands 10 feet high and is composed of thousands of hair combs. The teeth have been removed strategically to create the dimensionality in the image.

Walker made a fortune developing and selling haircare and beauty products for black women, becoming the first self-made female millionaire in U.S. history. A savvy businesswoman, she was also politically active and supported the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement and socialized with the likes of Langston Hughes, James VanDerZee, and W.E.B. DuBois.

THE IMAGE on the U.S. Postal Service stamp honoring Walker inspired the tapestry. Issued in 1998, the stamp is based on a 1914 photograph by African American photographer Addison Scurlock that was used extensively to promote her image and products.

Clark explained the concept for the work and the cultural significance of the materials she chose to create it. “I used 3,840 fine-toothed pocket combs to assemble this image of Walker, based on a photo taken around the start of her career,” she told Roberts, the curator. “Combs speak to Walker’s career as a pioneer of hair care. I also used them because they capture our national legacy of hair culture, and the gender and race politics of hair. As disposable objects, they parallel the low social status of African American women born in the late 1800s. But together, the thousands of combs become a monumental tapestry, signifying Walker’s magnitude and success despite her humble beginnings.”

“Combs speak to Walker’s career as a pioneer of hair care. …They capture our national legacy of hair culture, and the gender and race politics of hair. As disposable objects, they parallel the low social status of African American women born in the late 1800s. But together, the thousands of combs become a monumental tapestry, signifying Walker’s magnitude and success despite her humble beginnings.” — Sonya Clark

THERE HAVE BEEN more than 50 contributors so far helping to fund the $72,000 purchase. Coverage of the acquisition on public radio brought added attention and interest, but there is still an outstanding balance. The museum confirmed to Culture Type today, $3,000 still remains to be raised to pay for the work. Thus far, donors include individuals and civic associations such as the NCNW in Austin; two Texas chapters of The Links; Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce; and National Black MBA Association in Austin Chapter.

Roberts, who has marveled at the “collective generosity,” told KUT that the effort reminds her of a Kickstarter campaign.

Johnson said: “It’s important that black girls and women can see themselves and their history represented in the museum. People will see that in this [work]. It’s pretty iconic—especially in the black community, especially with black women, especially with black women in the beauty industry. Everybody knows Madam C.J. Walker.” CT

 

ARTIST TALK Sonya Clark is discussing her practice and the Madam C.J. Walker tapestry on Feb. 16.

 

EXHIBITION “Follicular: The Hair Stories of Sonya Clark,” a solo show at Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Va. is on view through May 14

 

TOP IMAGE: SONYA CLARK, “Madam C.J. Walker,” 2008 (combs). | Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin; Purchase through the generosity of Marilyn D. Johnson; Beverly Dale; Jeanne and Michael Klein; Fredericka and David Middleton; Joseph and Tam Hawkins; The National Council of Negro Women (Austin Section); Lone Star (TX) Chapter of The Links, Incorporated; Town Lake (TX) Chapter of The Links, Incorporated; National Society of Black Engineers-Austin Professionals; Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce; National Black MBA Association Austin Chapter; and other donors.