Mirror, Mirror: A life in hair

Sonya Clark works in her studio on the "Madam CJ Walker" portrait constructed of combs. "My art is not about being defiant," says Clark. "If I was being defiant, that would mean I was concerned about what white people think. This is an expression of my identity. . . . It's my story."
Sonya Clark works in her studio on the "Madam CJ Walker" portrait constructed of combs. "My art is not about being defiant," says Clark. "If I was being defiant, that would mean I was concerned about what white people think. This is an expression of my identity. . . . It's my story." ("Afro Abe," TAYLOR DABNEY)

Sonya Clark puts herself into her art, a story told in pieces fashioned from nappy tresses.

Posted: October 05, 2011

When I see Sonya Clark's provocative art that shows kinky black hair as abacus beads or fashioned into a set of vintage pearls, I am warmed with pride.

To me, the pieces say that African American hair in its natural state is a beautiful medium. After all, my nappy knots could be a part of Clark's solo exhibition that opens Friday at Snyderman-Works Galleries.

But pride isn't Clark's intention. Nor is defiance. Clark uses hair as a medium to tell a personal story, that of a first-generation African American woman whose parents immigrated from the Caribbean. Clark's story isn't one of anger or revenge, nor is it one that begs to prove equality or self-worth. (Although I think the series of five-dollar bills on which Clark adds an Afro to Abraham Lincoln makes a racially charged, in-your-face statement.)

"My art is not about being defiant," said Clark, 44, who is chair of craft and material studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. "If I was being defiant, that would mean I was concerned about what white people think. This is an expression of my identity. . . . It's my story."

The relationship between African American women and their hair is complex. At times it's been hated and feared as well as loved and revered.

The images Clark creates on her canvases and photographs are complex as well. Her art is hard to categorize; she calls herself a fiber artist, but her mixed-media work often takes the form of sculptures, installations, or photographs. And while her art speaks to the African American experience as a whole, Clark is clear that her work is deeply personal. Most of the hair she uses is her own. She also uses hair from close friends and family. 

 "My hair is the representation of the African American body," she explains.

The 24-piece gallery collection is fraught with personal depth and emotion.

Black Hair Flag originated in anger. "I was annoyed with our governor," Bob McDonnell of Virginia, "who was advocating for a Confederate History Month," she said.

Clark wove thick black cotton crochet thread into Bantu knots - West African hair patterns - and long, narrow cornrows. The knots and cornrows were arranged like the stars and stripes of the American flag, then were superimposed on a cloth Confederate flag. The knots and rows represent the work that African Americans did during the slavery era to create the America we know today.

Clark also celebrates her past.

Mom's Wisdom, which Clark refers to as a self-portrait of sorts, is a close-up photo of Clark's hands cradling a luminous silver ball of her mother's hair.

"I'm holding a biological representation of where I came from," Clark said.

Clark's work, which commands tens of thousands of dollars per piece, has been a part of scores of individual and solo exhibitions. She has shown in France and London as well as in museums in New York, Delaware, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

She did her graduate work at Michigan's Cranbrook Academy of Art and she won a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship to research combs, hair, and hairstyles for the National Museum of African Art and the National Museum of Natural History.

Rick Snyderman of Snyderman-Works Galleries has been familiar with Clark's work since the early 2000s. Her perspective, he said, speaks to the diversity of Philadelphia.

"Philly is such a diverse town and Clark blends history with contemporary issues," Snyderman said. "She's a recognized voice in the art world."

Using hair as a medium isn't a new concept. During the Victorian era, for example, artists used fine hair to make elaborate barrettes.

Clark, who started her career making art out of natural fabrics such as cotton and linen, said she chose hair as a medium because it means a lot to her.

Clark wore her hair relaxed, long, and straight before deciding in her early 20s that a natural look better suited her.

Would she ever use processed hair in her work? Probably not. She's committed to using only natural fibers. She does use the hair of her family and close friends; most have opted for natural styles as well.

And that brings us to the showstopper: an 11-by-8-foot portrait of Madam CJ Walker that Clark made from 3,000 fine-toothed combs.

Walker popularized the use of the hot comb, the apparatus many generations used to straighten kinky hair. This made Walker the first African American woman to become a millionaire.

The irony of this piece is that Clark constructed it using the kind of common plastic fine-toothed comb that can't be used on kinky hair unless it's straightened.

"I picked her because she is considered the godmother of black hair," Clark said. "I wanted to point her out as being one of these people."

That's why I dig her work.


Mirror, Mirror:

Sonya Clark

Snyderman-Works Galleries

303 Cherry St.

215-238-9576. Cost: Free www.snyderman-works.com/exhibitions/

sonya-clark


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704, ewellington@phillynews.com, or @ewellingtonphl on Twitter.

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