Hair’s the Thing: Sonya Clark

In celebration of NMWA’s 30th anniversary, and inspired by the museum’s focus on contemporary women artists as catalysts for change, Revival illuminates how women working in sculpture, photography, and video use spectacle and scale for expressive effect.

Sonya Clark (b. 1967, Washington, D.C.)

Sonya Clark, Cotton to Hair, 2012; Cotton and human hair, 14 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 5 in.; Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Sonya Clark, Cotton to Hair, 2012; Cotton and human hair, 14 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 5 in.; Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Sonya Clark is a multimedia and textile artist of Afro-Caribbean descent based in Richmond, Virginia. Clark’s maternal grandparents, a tailor and a woodworker, and cultural background inspired her interest in the arts and her use of non-traditional materials.

Her works explore racial identity and the connotations assigned to various everyday objects, as well as the double meaning these objects can hold for African American communities. Working with combs, money, flags, and—most strikingly—human hair, Clark examines the intricacies of African American identity. She often uses these quotidian materials to create portraits of prominent black figures from American history, including Madame C.J. Walker and Barack Obama.

The Artist’s Voice:

“I am instinctively drawn to objects that connect to my personal narrative as a point of departure: a comb, a piece of cloth, a penny, or hair. . . . I question these collective meanings. My stories, your stories, our stories are held in the object. In this way, the everyday ‘thing’ becomes a lens through which we may better see one another.”—Sonya Clark, artist statement

“Here’s one of the things about hair—it brings us together, our DNA is in our hair; we spend a fair amount of time primping ourselves. Hair becomes one of those things we can look racially past ourselves. It’s a way in which we’re all connected to our ancestors; hair brings us together and it separates us.”—Sonya Clark, interview in The Roanoker

Sonya Clark, Hair Wreath, 2012; Human hair and wire, 13 x 13 x 2 in.; Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Sonya Clark, Hair Wreath, 2012; Human hair and wire, 13 x 13 x 2 in.; Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Revival Highlight:

Two works by Clark, Hair Wreath (2012) and Cotton to Hair (2012) are on view in Revival. In both Clark incorporates human hair to reflect on racial identity and cultural prejudices. By using wire to bind strands of dark hair, Clark’s Hair Wreath can be seen as an adornment—much like hair itself is often decorative.

Using human hair to question social issues exemplifies Revival’s theme of artists manipulating scale and spectacle in order to achieve the desired expressive effect in their works. By combining the recognizable forms of both hair and a wreath in an unexpected juxtaposition, Clark holds the viewer’s attention. One of the smaller works in the exhibition, Hair Wreath encourages audiences to look closer, which may lead to a deeper examination of their own relationship to the work.

Visit the museum and explore Revival, on view through September 10, 2017.

—Meghan Masius was the spring 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Can Art Rouse the Spirit? Experience “Revival” this Summer!

On June 23, NMWA’s second floor will come alive with brilliant contemporary sculpture and photo-based art by 16 women artists in the summer exhibition Revival. The show explores the featured artists’ representations of the body, the child, and other creatures through a remarkable range of media, scale, and techniques.

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Three chromogenic prints mounted on aluminum, 66 x 150 in. overall; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Purchased with funds provided by Jacqueline Badger Mars, Sunny Scully Alsup and William Alsup, Mr. Sharad Tak and Mrs. Mahinder Tak, Marcia and Frank Carlucci, and Nancy Nelson Stevenson; © Lalla Essaydi

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Three chromogenic prints mounted on aluminum, 66 x 150 in. overall; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Purchased with funds provided by Jacqueline Badger Mars, Sunny Scully Alsup and William Alsup, Mr. Sharad Tak and Mrs. Mahinder Tak, Marcia and Frank Carlucci, and Nancy Nelson Stevenson; © Lalla Essaydi

Hanging sculptures, video projections, and large-scale photographs create immersive, mesmeric environments while smaller meticulous works draw the viewer close, beckoning toward sensations that spark memory and emotion. Each artist connects to the unconscious through highly allusive depictions of human and other animal bodies. The artists in Revival employ a wide range of materials in their works. Working with hair, yarn, velvet, wax, marble, found objects, taxidermied birds, and lens-based media, to name a few, these artists explore materiality in meaningful and impactful ways.

In the triptych from the series Bullets Revisited #3 (2012), Lalla Essaydi portrays a reclining woman with her face turned toward the viewer, confronting the historical Orientalism of Western artists, particularly sexualized depictions of women. Upon a closer look, the viewer will notice that the figure’s body is covered in henna calligraphy, challenging the tradition of calligraphy as a male-dominated art form. The woman’s dress and surroundings are elaborately decorated with silver and gold bullet casings. Essaydi explains her use of bullet casings as a commentary on violence against women in a new post-revolutionary era following the Arab Spring.

Sonya Clark, Cotton to Hair, 2012; Cotton and human hair, 14 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 5 in.; Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Sonya Clark, Cotton to Hair, 2012; Cotton and human hair, 14 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 5 in.; Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

In Cotton to Hair (2012), Sonya Clark juxtaposes a boll of cotton with human hair to allude to the history of slavery in the U.S., acknowledging cotton as a key contributor to U.S. trade and wealth in the early 1800s. Clark combines cotton with a tuft of dark human hair, referencing African American slaves who worked in the fields to create this wealth.

The exhibition features powerful works by Louise Bourgeois, Petah Coyne, Alison Saar, Joana Vasconcelos, Patricia Piccinini, alongside other artists featured in NMWA’s collection. Revival illuminates women who regenerate sculpture and photo-based art to profound expressive effect. A survey of the museum’s collection in its 30th year inspired this exhibition, which is enriched by important loans from public and private collections as well as artists’ studios.

Visit the museum and see Revival, on view from June 23 to September 10, 2017.

—Roseline Odhiambo is the summer 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Sonya Clark

Impress your friends with five fast facts about textile artist Sonya Clark (b. 1967), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

Sonya Clark (b. 1967)

1. Hair’s to You!

Clark’s fascination with hair began at an early age, when neighborhood teenagers plaited her locks. She often uses human hair in her textile works because it’s a material loaded with meaning. Hair can serves as a portrait of an individual, a record of one’s ancestry, and an arena through which society negotiates race.

2. Picturing Pride

The artist alters a variety of familiar objects, like currency and combs, to create powerful portraits of prominent figures from American history. Her representations celebrate Abraham Lincoln for his role as an early civil rights leader, Barack Obama as the first black president, and Madame C.J. Walker as a civil rights activist and self-made millionaire.

3. “Bad” Hair Day

Prevailing social constructs have stigmatized black hair as “bad.” Clark addresses race-based valuations of hair in works like NAP (2011). By reclaiming and embracing a word that has traditionally held negative connotations, she calls into question assumptions that silky, straight, smooth hair is the only “good” hair out there.

4. Salon Style

The exhibition Follicular: The Hair Stories of Sonya Clark, currently on view at the Taubman Museum of Art, includes works by Clark as well as a collaborative project. Richmond-area hairdressers contributed textiles inspired by black hairstyles to Clark’s The Hair Craft Project. “Hairdressers are my heroes,” says Clark.

5. Unraveling Racism

In Unraveling and Unraveled (2015), Clark painstakingly deconstructed, thread by thread, a Confederate flag. For many Americans, this symbol represents bigotry and oppression. With three quarters of the flag left intact Clark leaves the process unfinished, suggesting that the hard work of defeating racism is not done.

—Adrienne L. Gayoso is the associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: December 16, 2016

NPR explores 17th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s status as a feminist icon.

She is a phenomenon in terms of the history of art, because we really understood her life far earlier than we cared, really, about her painting,” says Judith Mann, a curator of Rome’s exhibition Artemisia Gentileschi and Her Times.

Front-Page Femmes

NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling joined the “Why is Gender Still an Issue?” panel at Art Basel Miami.

Several artists offer free, downloadable, anti-Trump protest images.

ARTnews highlights exciting U.S.-based artists, including NO MAN’S LAND artist Jennifer Rubell.

Artist Nina Katchadourian spent two years exploring MoMA for her new “Dust Gathering” audio guide.

Wendy Red Star explores the intersections of Native American ideologies and colonialist structures.

Annette Messager employs icons of anti-patriarchal anger in her drawings, paintings, sculptures, and installations.

Greek illustrator Meni Chatzipanagiotou creates a series of woodcut vignettes of animals and mountain ranges.

In her “Back to the Future” series Irina Werning re-creates childhood photos with painstaking detail.

Marina Abramović celebrated her 70th birthday at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Andrea Fraser talks about the “growing gap between art discourse and the social and political and actual lived reality of what we’re doing.”

“It’s harder to be taken seriously as a woman,” says artist Zoë Buckman.

New York Magazine interviewed Tschabalala Self, Chloe Wise, and Ayana Evans about the “shifting balance of power at Art Basel.”

Images of Irish artist Eileen Gray and Canadian activist Viola Desmond will appear on new currency.

“There is something both disturbing and inadvertently enthralling about the doughy fleshed out pencil drawings” by Ingrid Maillard in her “Contortion” series.

The Guardian reviews Siri Hustvedt’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women and writes, “The novelist’s smart essays on science and the arts bridge the gap between the disciplines, inviting us to look at the world anew.”

Hyperallergic raves about Muriel Leung’s poems in Bone Confetti.

German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker is the subject of a new film.

Shows We Want to See

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston displays more than 100 works by artist and writer Frances Stark in UH-OH.

Sonya Clark uses hair and combs to explore themes of cultural heritage, gender, beauty standards, race, and identity. Follicular: The Hair Stories of Sonya Clark at the Taubman Museum of Art includes new work and site-specific installations and performances.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Hammer Museum announced a jointly-organized retrospective of Italian Arte Povera artist Marisa Merz, focusing on the artist’s half-century career.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.