5 Fast Facts: Sonya Clark’s Materials

Blog Category:  5 Fast Facts
A detail photograph of black pocket combs arranged into a gride of squares. In some squares, the teeth have been snipped so the background is white, in others select teeth are left creating fine black lines. Still in others squares, the majority of teeth have been left creating a predominately black background.

Impress your friends with five fast facts about the materials that matter to Sonya Clark (b. 1967). Perhaps best known for incorporating Black hair into her works, Clark also makes use of a variety of other materials. For her, found objects hold history and convey context, thereby enriching the meaning of her art.

Clark’s midcareer survey, Tatter, Bristle, and Mend, is on view at NMWA through June 27.

Two head caps made of small, blue glass beads rest on two black mannequin heads. The two caps are connected at the tops by a beaded chain. The left cap is made of darker blue beads and the right cap is made of lighter blue beads. The chain combines both shades.
Sonya Clark, Blued, 1998; Glass beads, 9 x 14 x 9 in.; Private collection; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Tom McInvaille

1. Beads

Beads fascinate Clark because of their use across time and cultures for a multitude of purposes, including prayer, play, trade, and ornamentation. In the artist’s hands, humble glass seed beads transform into significant reminders of the universals of humanity—our shared genetic makeup, quest for connection, and celebration of creativity.

2. Combs

Clark uses fine-tooth combs, originally made for white hair, in unexpected ways. She teases out conversations about “hair culture, race politics, and antiquated notions of good hair and bad hair.” Clark reinvents combs as looms for woven patterns and phrases; meandering tendrils; sculptural curls; and larger-than-life portraits to honor Black experience and figures like Madam C. J. Walker and Ntozake Shange.

A black framed sculpture of a branch of a cotton plant against a white background. The stem of the plant is bronze, and splits to lead to two bolls at its top. The right boll is made of cotton, while the left boll is made of black, curly hair.
Sonya Clark, Cotton to Hair, 2009; Bronze, human hair, and cotton, 14 ½ x 12 ½ x 5 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

3. Cotton

Cotton appears in many forms in Clark’s work—as pods, bolls, thread, U.S. $5 bills (which are 75% cotton and 25% linen), and even Confederate battle flags. By using the material in its natural and processed states, Clark references cotton as a commodity, specifically a cash crop fueled by slavery and sharecropping, and highlights its cost on human lives.

Two five dollar bills lay atop a white background. On the top bill, thick crystals of sugar encrust its lower half; on the bottom bill, thick crystals of sugar encrust its upper half.
Sonya Clark, Encrusted, 2015; Five-dollar bills and sugar, each 4 x 6 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Taylor Dabney

4. Sugar

Clark transforms this ubiquitous ingredient into eye-catching flowers, gemstones, and sweet accretions on U.S. currency. Once lured in, viewers must confront the ugly truths of “white gold,” including colonialism, the Middle Passage, and enslaved labor. Kara Walker (b. 1969) addressed sugar’s unsettling history in her 2014 installation A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.

White, capital, neon letters spell the Italian word 'schiavo' in serif text against a black background. The 's,' 'h,' and 'v' are dark, leaving the letters to spell 'ciao.'
Sonya Clark, Schiavo/Ciao, 2019; Neon, 10 x 50 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

5. Words

Language plays a key role in Clark’s work. Words often appear in her compositions, sometimes on found objects that she recontextualizes, sometimes as quotes said by those she admires. Other works illuminate racism engrained in language and the privileges of literacy and freedom. Titles such as Reach, Unraveling, and Unraveled imply action and agency.

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