“Afro Abe II” (2010) by Sonya Clark

 

THE SINGULAR PRACTICE of Sonya Clark will be showcased for the first time with a full-scale survey at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, D.C. A textile and social practice artist, Clark explores issues of race, identity, visibility, and Blackness, expressing herself in a variety of mediums, from mixed-media and installation to sculpture and performance.

Spanning 25 years, the mid-career survey will feature nearly 100 works of art. “Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend” opens March 3, 2021 and will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog.

“This timely exhibition affirms Clark’s prowess as both maker and visionary,” Kathryn Wat, NMWA’s deputy director for art, programs and public engagement and chief curator, said in a statement. “She uses concept, process and participation rather than didactic imagery to reflect questions and truths back to us.”

“This timely exhibition affirms Clark’s prowess as both maker and visionary. She uses concept, process and participation rather than didactic imagery to reflect questions and truths back to us.” — Chief Curator Kathryn Wat

Employing traditional fiber art techniques, Clark’s work centers themes of labor, language, cultural heritage, and American history. She works with human hair and other symbolic materials and common objects tied to identity and power, including hair combs, currency, beads, sugar, cotton, and flags.

A five-dollar bill embellished with black fibers that form an enormous Afro on the head of President Abraham Lincoln raises historic, cultural, and contemporary associations with money, freedom, and Black pride. Speaking about “Afro Abe II” (2010), Clark has said: “It’s crowning the emancipator with the hair most associated with Black liberation and Black power.”

In 2014, she created The Hair Craft Project, a collaboration with Black hair stylists that explored the poetry and politics of Black hair. Clark provided each with two canvases–her head of hair and a traditional canvas with silk thread. Describing the project she said: “Their challenge was to demonstrate their expertise in a familiar medium, hair, and translate it into a less familiar one, thread on canvas. For the span of the project, I became a walking art gallery donning glorious hairstyles.

 


SONYA CLARK, “Hair Craft Project Hairstyles (Ife),” 2014 (From series of 11 color photographs, each 28 x 28 inches). | On loan from the artist, © Sonya Clark. Photo by Naoko Wowsugi

 


SONYA CLARK, “Iterations,” 2008 (plastic combs, 6 x 93 x 52 inches). | Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, 2015.218. © Sonya Clark. Photo by Travis Fullerton, © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

 

Using black plastic hair combs, Clark has created a monumental 10 x 7 foot tapestry portrait of Madame C.J. Walker and fashioned a layered floor installation referencing cultural roots and family heritage (“Iterations,” 2008). She has used dreadlocks to form a “hair wreath” and as a substitute for the strings on a violin bow.

Over the years, Clark has engaged with the Confederate flag in a number of symbolic ways. She’s dyed it black and bleached it white. For “Black Hair Flag” (2010), she layered the design of the American flag on top of the Confederate flag, using black string to create stars in the form of Bantu knots and stripes realized as cornrows.

She has also unraveled the Confederate flag. “Unraveling” (2015-) is an ongoing performative work that takes place over many, many hours with the help of museum goers who line up for their turn to stand side-by-side with Clark and undo the strident symbol one fiber at a time.

“The word ‘racism’ is sort of like a trigger word; you know, it can shut people’s ears off, shut people down, bring people’s defense mechanisms up,” the artist has said. “So I’m less interested in that, and more interested in picking apart and undoing and understanding the fabric of our nation and trying to really understand the roots of racial injustice.”

“Schiavo/Ciao” (2019), a neon sculpture, will be shown publicly for the first time in the exhibition. The tubing spells out the word “schiavo,” which means “slave” in Italian. When the work is fully lit, it reads “schiavo.” Alternatively only the letters “c,” “i,” “a,” and “o” light up, spelling “ciao.” The common greeting derives from an Italian phrase that means “I am your slave,” suggesting that one was at another’s service or disposal.

“Millions of people around the world toss off a casual ‘ciao’ to friends, but virtually none of them know that the phrase is born of a reference to an institution that negates human dignity,” Wat said.

BORN IN WASHINGTON, D.C., Clark is returning to her hometown for “Tatter, Bristle, and Mend,” a major milestone in her career. Her work has been presented internationally in numerous solo and group exhibitions at museums and galleries and is represented in many institutional and private collections. She was among the 16 artists selected for the inaugural Black Rock Senegal residency program in Dakar (2020), which was established by artist Kehinde Wiley.

Clark is professor of art at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass. Previously, she served as chair of the Craft/Material Studies Department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, from 2006 to 2017. She earned an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She also holds a BA from Amherst College.

 


SONYA CLARK, “Madam C. J. Walker,” 2008 (plastic combs, 122 x 87 inches). | Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, © Sonya Clark. Image courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art

 


SONYA CLARK, “Black Hair Flag,” 2010 (paint and thread on canvas, 52 x 26 inches). | Collection of Pamela K. and William A. Royall Jr., © Sonya Clark. Photo by Taylor Dabney

 

In her practice, Clark has continued to consider the legacy of the Confederacy with a recent project inspired by the Confederate Flag of Truce. The “flag” was actually a dish towel waved by Confederate troops on April 9, 1865, to surrender the Civil War at Appomattox, Va.

Clark produced an exhibition around the flag (“Monumental Cloth, the Flag We Should Know”), including installations, a performance, and educational activities intended to present a counter-narrative to the more well-known Confederate flag and its racist symbolism. How might American history and culture have been altered if the Truce Flag, which is housed at the Smithsonian, rather than the battle flag, endured and gained popularity?

This week, in addition to news of her forthcoming survey at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Clark announced a new Solidarity Book Project, a “collaborative, community-based artwork and activist initiative that invites participants to stand in solidarity with Black and Indigenous communities.”

Introducing the “Tatter, Bristle, and Mend” exhibition, NMWA explained how hair and cloth have informed Clark’s practice:

    Hair: Because it emanates from the body, hair is sometimes considered taboo as an art-making material. Hair’s connection to the individual body, however, is precisely why Clark embraces it as the most essential textile fiber available to her. A strand of hair possesses a person’s whole DNA sequence, standing in for the physical body as well as an extended genealogy.…

    Recognizing the meaning encoded in hair, the artist considers how material culture reifies that sense of self. Her work responds to the legacy of hair culture, evolving hair and race politics, and notions of “good hair” and “bad hair.”

    Cloth: Drawing on the rich complexity of her heritage, with a Jamaican mother, Trinidadian father and Scottish great-grandfather, Clark has a unique vantage point on American identity and craft. Her interest in textiles extends in part from her maternal grandmother (a tailor) and her own study of textiles in art school.

“Textiles have a lot of power,” Clark has said. “You might not know how something is woven or knit or the structure, but you know something of cloth, and cloth is surrounding you all the time.” CT

 

“Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., is forthcoming opens March 3, 2021

 

TOP IMAGE: SONYA CLARK, “Afro Abe II,” 2010 (five-dollar bill and thread, 4 x 6 inches). | National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection. © Sonya Clark, Photo by Lee Stalsworth

 

FIND MORE about Sonya Clark on her website

READ MORE about Sonya Clark’s Confederate Flag of Truth exhibition, which opened at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia last year, and will be on view at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Mass. (April 9-Sept. 12, 2021)

 


SONYA CLARK, “Nap,” 2012 (glass beads and board, 16 x 20 x 5 inches). | On loan from the artist, © Sonya Clark. Photo by Taylor Dabney

 


SONYA CLARK, “Hair Wreath,” 2002 (human hair and wire, 13 x 13 x 2 inches). | National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, © Sonya Clark. Photo by Lee Stalsworth

 


SONYA CLARK, “Blued,” 1998 (glass beads, 9 x 14 x 9 inches). | Private collection, © Sonya Clark. Photo by Tom McInvaille

 


SONYA CLARK, “Obama and Lincoln (Penny Portrait),” 2011 (inkjet print, 67 x 42 inches). | On loan from the artist, © Sonya Clark. Image courtesy the artist and Lisa Sette Gallery. Photo by Lisa Sette Gallery

 


SONYA CLARK, “Cotton to Hair,” 2009 (bronze, human hair, and cotton, 14 ½ x 12 ½ x 5 inches). | National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, © Sonya Clark. Photo by Lee Stalsworth

 


SONYA CLARK, “Monumental Fragment,” 2019 (linen, 50 x 34 inches). | On loan from the artist, © Sonya Clark. Photo by Taylor Dabney

 


SONYA CLARK, “Straight Ways,” 2017 (plastic combs, dyed blonde human hair, synthetic hair, 20 x 10 inches). | Collection of Myra Block Kaiser. Image courtesy Myra Block Kaiser, Photo by Myra Black Kaiser, © Sonya Clark

 


SONYA CLARK, “Black Man (Invisible),” 2016 (copy of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and glass beads, 4 x 8 x 5 inches). | On loan from the artist, © Sonya Clark. Image courtesy the artist

 


SONYA CLARK, “Fingers,” from the “Wig Series,” 1998 (cloth and thread, 10 x 14 x 14 inches). | Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Purchase through the Rudolph and Louise Langer Fund, © Sonya Clark; Image courtesy of Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

 

BOOKSHELF
Forthcoming in February 2021, a fully illustrated catalog will accompany “Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend.” “Sonya Clark: Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know” documents the exhibition the artist developed during her residency at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. An earlier publication, “The Beaded Prayers Project,” was released in 2013. In addition, the artist references the publications that have been produced about her work on her website.

 

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