Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend

Tatter, Bristle, and Mend spans the breadth of the artist’s career to date. Early beaded and stitched pieces are paired with Clark’s more recent forays into mediums such as sugar and neon. The exhibition focuses on central themes—heritage, labor, language, and visibility—and emphasizes Clark’s astute ability to rework concepts and materials over time. By stitching black thread cornrows and Bantu knots onto fabrics, rolling hair into necklaces, and stringing a violin bow with a dreadlock, Clark manifests ancestral bonds and reasserts the Black presence in histories from which it has been pointedly omitted.

Sonya Clark, Afro Abe II (detail), 2010; Five-dollar bill and thread, 4 x 6 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Emily Haight

To demonstrate the connection between fiber art processes and hairdressing, Clark used dark thread as a stand-in for hair in her “Wig Series.” “That which is carried on the head is often indicative of what is within the head,” she says. Twists suggest an energetic, animated state of mind, for example.

A wig cap sits mounted on a black stand. Black thread is stitched into the cap, mimicking hair. The thread is stitched into a single column, sticking up vertically from the cap.
A wig cap sits mounted on a black stand. Black thread is stitched into the cap, mimicking hair. The thread forms two small buns.
A wig cap sits mounted on a black stand. Black thread is stitched into the cap, mimicking hair. The thread forms five finger-like forms that protrude from all sides.
A wig cap sits mounted on a black stand. Black thread is stitched into the cap, mimicking hair. The thread forms three braids.

Left to right and top to bottom: Sonya Clark, Unum, HemiFingers, and Triad, from the “Wig Series,” 1998; Cloth and thread, dimensions variable.; Courtesy of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Purchase through the Rudolph and Louise Langer Fund; © Sonya Clark; Images courtesy of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

Clark’s early work includes a variety of symbolic headpieces expressive of the Yoruba concept of ashe, a divine life force sited in the head. Blued is one of a number of blue-hued headpieces the artist created that reference both Yoruba artistic traditions and the encounters between Africa and the Western world. The chain connecting these two caps makes clear reference to the slave trade that bound Africa with colonial Europe and the Americas.

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

Clark arranged the multicolored beads within this work to represent the genetic code for melanin, the pigment that produces color in the skin, hair, and eyes of humans. Naturally occurring genetic mutations of melanin have produced wide variations of skin color within populations since the beginning of the modern human species. Clark’s sculpture gives shape to a genetic material that has taken on a disproportionate significance in American culture and racial history.

A sculpture of a glass tube affixed to a white wall with a spiraling column of small, multicolored glass beads. The beads are blue, red, yellow, green and black.
Detail image of a sculpture of a glass tube affixed to a white wall with a spiraling column of small, multicolored glass beads. The beads are blue, red, yellow, green and black.

Top to bottom: Sonya Clark, Melanin (and detail), 2002; Glass tube and glass beads, 38 ¼ x 3 x 2 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photos by Taylor Dabney

A beaded sculpture of two hands. A larger hand, made of blue glass beads, rests palm up. It cradles a smaller hand made of green glass beads, which is centered in the same position in the larger hand’s palm.

Sonya Clark, Inner Hand (Blue and Green), 2002; Beads, ½ x 7 x 4 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Taylor Dabney

Clark’s ancestors include people of the Yoruba culture in West Africa, who associate the color white with wisdom—and see white hair as an outward sign of knowledge. In this image, the artist’s hands cradle her mother’s white hair. Clark’s mother’s forebears were forced from Africa to the Caribbean as part of the slave trade that fueled the sugar industry (sugar being the main ingredient of cotton candy), which flourished in the region from the sixteenth century.

A color photograph of two hands holding a round tuft of white hair against a black background.

Sonya Clark, Mom’s Wisdom or Cotton Candy, 2011; Photograph, 22 ¼ x 30 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Image courtesy of the artist

In some works, Clark replaces parts of common objects with her own hair—in this case, the keys of a vintage typewriter—asserting a Black presence into places where it has been pointedly omitted, such as the field of creative writing. This particular typewriter, a Remington Noiseless, was produced in the 1920s and ’30s, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance.

An antique, black and silver typewriter with the words “Remington 7 Noiseless” emblazoned on the top. The lettered keys of the typewriter have been replaced with balls of dark brown hair.

Sonya Clark, Writer Type (Pen and Sword), 2016; Remington Noiseless 7 typewriter and artist’s hair, 7 x 10 x 11 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Taylor Dabney

By restringing violin bows with human hair—one with a dreadlock made from her own hair, and the other with straight, blond hair—Clark connects music and identity. With hair as a holder of DNA, the bows present the possibility of bringing ancestral voices to life. In a 2018 performance, “Sounding the Ancestors,” jazz musician Regina Carter used the bow strung with Clark’s dreadlock to play Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” and James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the “Black National Anthem.”

Two wooden violin bows, one strung with straight, smooth blond hair, and the other strung with a dark dreadlock, made from human hair.
A color photograph of a dark-skinned woman holding a violin and playing its strings with the bow strung from a dreadlock.

Top: Sonya Clark, Hairbows (and details), 2014; Artist’s hair, blond hair, and violin bows, each 1 x 29 x ½ in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photos by Taylor Dabney; Bottom: Jazz violinist Regina Carter plays Sonya Clark’s Hairbow (2014); Photo by Alvester Garnett

More than 80,000 individual hairs come together in this dreadlocked skein, representing the approximate number of Africans forcibly migrated as chattel slaves in just one year at the height of the transatlantic slave trade. Through her work, Clark often unravels complex racial, social, and cultural issues. While this skein is tightly wound, a loose end emerges—an invitation to viewers to begin the difficult but necessary work of unwinding these issues alongside the artist.

A sculpture of a skein of yarn, wound tightly into a ball, with a small tail extending on the end. The yarn is made of a long, dark, dreadlock.

Sonya Clark, Skein, 2016; Human hair, 5 x 5 x 8 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Taylor Dabney

In her Hair Necklace works, Clark rolls, twists, balls, and loops human hair to create necklaces of many styles and forms. In some families, jewelry is an heirloom, inherited through generations—much like the DNA found in hair. To craft such pieces from hair rather than gems suggests that hair itself is the heirloom, a crowning jewel comprised of the fiber of one’s ancestors.

A necklace made from coiled, balled, and twisted dark human hair hangs on the wall. The hair is twisted into five branches, which fan out.
A necklace made from coiled, balled, and twisted dark human hair hangs on the wall. The hair is wrapped around small beads.
A necklace made from coiled, balled, and twisted dark human hair hangs on the wall. The necklace is formed from a long, open-ended dreadlock that becomes white at its end.
A necklace made from coiled, balled, and twisted dark human hair hangs on the wall. The hair is rolled into balls that grow in size toward the middle.

Left to right and top to bottom: Sonya Clark, Hair Necklace 5 (Branches), 2006; Human hair, 16 x 13 in.; Hair Necklace 2, 2012; Human hair and beads, 16 x 6 in.; Hair Necklace 3, 2012; Human hair, 28 x 4 in.; Hair Necklace 6 (Pearls), 2014; Human hair, 30 x 5 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photos by Taylor Dabney

A circular wreath made from dark-colored human hair. The hair has been twisted into branch-like forms, and wrapped together to form a circular wreath.

Sonya Clark, Hair Wreath, 2002; Human hair and wire, 13 x 13 x 2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Clark began this series shortly after the death of playwright Ntozake Shange in late 2018. Shange’s best-known work, the choreopoem (poem choreographed to music) for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, premiered in 1976. Clark wrapped the spines of black combs with vivid threads, bound the combs together, and nestled each “tapestry” into an afro wig. The wrapped combs’ array of colors calls to mind the characters in Shange’s production (Lady in Green, Lady in Blue, Lady in Orange, etc.).

A square of bright, multicolored threads of blue and green tones rest in the center of a circular afro wig made of black hair.
A square of bright, multicolored threads rest in the center of a circular afro wig made of black hair.

Top to bottom: Sonya Clark, For Colored Girls, A Rainbow (Green), 2019; Afro wig, plastic combs, and thread, 12 x 12 x 5 in.; and For Colored Girls, A Rainbow 1, 2019; Afro wig, plastic combs, and thread, 12 x 12 x 3 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photos by Lee Stalsworth

A sculpture made from black cotton thread that has been woven into white canvas shelves. On the left, the thread is affixed tautly between an upper and lower shelf. It has been woven into the canvas in a branch-like formation, and braided as it hangs down. On the right, the thread has been woven into a top shelf, but dangles loosely below.
A detail image of a sculpture made from black cotton thread that has been woven into a white canvas shelf in a branch-like formation, and braided upwards. The braids are intertwined at the top.

Left to right / top to bottom: Sonya Clark, Rooted and Uprooted (and detail), 2011; Canvas and thread, each 30 x 12 x 12 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photos by Taylor Dabney

The term “triangle trade” describes the network of economic exchange between Europe, Africa, and the Americas in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Transatlantic triangular trade routes enabled the exchange and plunder of enslaved people, cash crops, and manufactured goods. Clark’s use of cotton thread and a cornrow braid—sometimes called “canerows” in the Caribbean, for the region’s sugarcane production—reference the crops that perpetuated the cruel system.

An off-white, square canvas with a large equilateral triangle in the center made from stitched black cotton thread. The thread has been braided, as a cornrow, in a triangular spiraling patter than ends with a large knot in the center of the triangle.

Sonya Clark, Triangle Trade, 2011; Cotton thread on canvas, 60 x 70 in.; Collection of Minnesota Museum of American Art, Purchase, Acquisition Fund, 2016.07.01; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Rik Sferra

This illuminated sculpture toggles between the word “schiavo,” the Italian word for “slave,” and “ciao,” the informal salutation that extends from an Italian phrase meaning “I am your slave.” Excavating language is one way that Clark exposes latent racism that passes through time without reflection. People around the world toss a “ciao” to friends each day, but few know that the phrase is borne of a casual reference to slavery.

White neon letters against a black background. The letters light up to read “schiavo.”
White neon letters against a black background. The “s,” “h,” and “v” are dark, and the text reads “ciao.”

Sonya Clark, Schiavo/Ciao, 2019; Neon, 10 x 50 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photos by Lee Stalsworth

5,242 inches of gold wire comprise the thread wound tightly around this hand-carved African ebony spool. The length equals the distance in miles between Cape Coast, Ghana (once known as the Gold Coast), and Richmond, Virginia, the second-largest port for human trafficking at the height of the transatlantic slave trade.

A sculpture of a spool of thread. The spool is made of black ebony, while the thin thread is gold. The thread Is wound tightly and neatly around the spool, and a small, thin tail sticks out the end.

Sonya Clark, Gold Coast Journey, 2016; 18K gold wire and African ebony; 1 ¾ x 1 ¼ x 1 ¼ in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Taylor Dabney

Sugar replaces the traditional diamond in this pair of golden rings. This type of ring often represents a legal union through marriage. Clark uses it to illustrate the binding ties between slavery and goods such as sugar, a major cash crop of the slave trade.

Two rings with gold bands and small gem-like forms on top. The gems are crafted from raw sugar. The left ring is perfectly circular with a small, white sugar crystal on top. The right ring is a slightly rougher circle, with a larger brown sugar crystal on top.

Sonya Clark, Engagement Rings, 2016; Gold and sugar, each 1 x 1 x ¼ in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Taylor Dabney

Two American five-dollar bills stacked on top of one another. Each one is half encased with crystalized sugar.

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

The handwoven strips of cloth in this textile are made with a Ghanaian weave structure known as kente. Clark plaited the strips into a composition resembling the U.S. flag. As part of a performance that brought together “both Africanness and Americanness,” Clark recalls, she asked fifty Black women to tie this cloth on their head in the form of a gele, or Nigerian head wrap, and record their thoughts about kente cloth, the American flag, and the term “African American.”

A horizontal, rectangular fabric artwork, made of woven strips of silk and cotton. The colors of the horizontal fabric strips are red, white, and blue, reminiscent of the American flag, while interwoven the vertical strips are shades of yellow, orange and green.

Sonya Clark, Gele Kente Flag, 1995; Handwoven silk and cotton, 15 x 72 in.; Muscarelle Museum of Art, Acquired with funds from the Board of Visitors Muscarelle Museum of Art Endowment, Muscarelle Museum of Art at William & Mary 2020.004; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Taylor Dabney

A vertical rectangular canvas woven with black cotton thread. The thread has been braided into the approximate form of an American flag. Where the stars would be, the thread forms branching cornrows, and where the stripes would be, the thread hangs densely, like hair.
Detail view of a vertical rectangular canvas woven with black cotton thread. The thread has been braided into the approximate form of an American flag. Where the stars would be, the thread forms branching cornrows, and where the stripes would be, the thread hangs densely, like hair.

Left to right / top to bottom: Sonya Clark, Octoroon (and detail), 2018; Canvas and thread, 85 ⅜ x 38 ¼ x 2 in.; Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA; © Sonya Clark; Images courtesy of the artist and Lisa Sette Gallery

Clark developed Unraveling in 2015 – the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. She activates the work in performances, inviting viewers to stand beside her and join her in unraveling the heavy cotton flag, thread by thread. The painstaking work emblematizes “the slow and deliberate work of unraveling racial dynamics in the United States,” Clark explains. “I think there’s poetry in what we’re trying to do together.”

An image of an American Confederate Battle Flag, which is partially unraveled at the bottom. The unraveled threads hang down loosely and pool into a pile on a white platform beneath the flag.
A photograph of two figures standing side by side, unraveling the threads of an American Confederate battle flag. The figure on the left has light skin, and the figure on the right has darker skin. They face away from the camera, with their hands in the center of the image pulling loose the threads.

Top: Sonya Clark, Unraveling, 2015; Cotton Confederate battle flag, 70 x 36 x 7 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Lisa Sette Gallery; © Sonya Clark; Image courtesy of the artist and Lisa Sette Gallery; Bottom: Sonya Clark, Unraveling (detail, performance), 2015; Cotton Confederate battle flag, 10 x 36 x 7 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Lisa Sette Gallery; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Taylor Dabney

At the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Clark viewed part of the Confederate flag of truce, a dish towel used by Confederate troops to surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, marking the end of the American Civil War. In Monumental Cloth (Sutured), she rewove the cloth at an enlarged scale and used black suture thread to stitch the two halves together, as if binding a wound.

A rectangular, light colored sheet of fabric with three vertical red stripes on either end. The cloth drapes in the center, where two halves have been sewn together using black thread.

Sonya Clark, Monumental Cloth (Sutured), 2017; Linen replica Confederate truce flag and silk thread, 18 x 36 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Taylor Dabney

“Everyone knows the Confederate battle flag. After seeing the truce flag . . . I realized it wasn’t hidden, but it also wasn’t elevated,” Clark says. Here, she rewove a fragment of the towel, which she describes as “the flag we should all know,” at 10:1 scale, magnifying its significance.

A rectangular white cloth with three red stripes running horizontally through it. The bottom of the cloth is frayed, with white threads hanging down. The top right corner has been cut out, leaving a blank space.

Sonya Clark, Monumental Fragment, 2019; Linen, 50 x 34 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Taylor Dabney

A framed sculpture of a branch of a cotton plant. The stem of the plant is bronze, and leads to two bolls at its top. The right boll is made of two cotton, while the left boll is made of black 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

Just before Barack Obama became President of the United States, Clark embroidered her first afro onto the head of Abraham Lincoln on a five-dollar bill. Her needlework on legal tender invokes the promise of Black social and political agency. Regarding the new hairstyle she gave to President Lincoln, Clark says, “First, Lincoln looks much better with an afro. Second, it’s crowning the Emancipator with the hair most associated with Black liberation and Black power.”

U.S. five-dollar bill has an embroidered afro and sideburns stitched onto the portrait of Lincoln’s head. One-third of the afro protrudes beyond the top of the bill.

Sonya Clark, Afro Abe II, 2010; Five-dollar bill and thread, 4 x 6 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Clark formed this image of President Barack Obama from digital images of the U.S. one-cent coin that features another Illinois statesman, Abraham Lincoln. After issuing the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which declared the freedom of enslaved people living in the Confederate states, Lincoln became a symbol of African American liberation, paving the way eventually for fuller Black participation in American political life.

A portrait of former United States president Barack Obama. The portrait is composed of thousands of digital prints of pennies scaled to varying sizes for form a figure from the neck up. The portrait shows the former president smiling, wearing a dark jacket, white shirt, and tie.

Sonya Clark, Obama and Lincoln (Penny Portrait), 2011; Inkjet print, 67 x 42 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Image courtesy of the artist and Lisa Sette Gallery

A sculpture of an arm chair with wooden legs and arms and a red fabric seat. Black cotton thread has been stitched onto the back and underside of the chair in the form of braided cornrows. The braids hand down beneath the chair, dangling to the ground.

Sonya Clark, Cornrow Chair, 2011; Upholstered chair and thread, 36 x 20 x 20 in.; On loan from Goya Contemporary Gallery, Baltimore; © Sonya Clark; Image courtesy of Goya Contemporary

This portrait depicts Madam C. J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. She developed hair care products for African American hair and achieved extraordinary professional and financial success prior to women’s suffrage and long before the Civil Rights Movement. Clark used 3,840 pocket combs to assemble this image based on a 1912 photograph of Walker by Addison Scurlock. “Together, the thousands of combs become a monumental tapestry, signifying Walker’s magnitude and success despite her humble beginnings,” Clark says.

A sculpted portrait of a woman in partial profile with short hair, depicted from the chest up. The portrait is sculpted from black plastic pocket combs, whose teeth have been removed in varying quantities to create the image of the woman.

Sonya Clark, Madam C. J. Walker, 2008; Plastic combs, 122 x 87 in.; Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of Marilyn D. Johnson; Beverly Dale; Buckingham Foundation, Inc.; Jeanne and Michael Klein; Fredericka and David Middleton; H-E-B; Joseph and Tam Hawkins; Carmel and Gregory Fenves; 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; © Sonya Clark; Image courtesy of Blanton Museum of Art 

In this collective work, Clark partnered with eleven hairstylists working in Richmond, Virginia. Observing that hairdressers, who work with hair fibers, are also textile artists, Clark invited each of them to create a style for her own hair. The photographs show the back of Clark’s head as well as the hairdresser who created each design. “I became a walking art gallery of their hairstyles,” Clark recalls.

A color photograph featuring two dark skinned women in front of a red background. The woman on the left has very short brown hair and faces the camera, she is wearing a green v-neck t-shirt. The woman on the right stands with her back to the camera wearing a yellow shirt. Her brown hair is braided in an elaborate star pattern.
A color photograph featuring two dark skinned women in front of a blue background. The woman on the left has long brown hair pulled over her right shoulder. She is facing the camera and wears a black shirt with a grey cardigan. The woman on the right stands with her back to the camera wearing a black shirt with a single button at the top. Her brown hair is braided in an elaborate pattern and pulled up on the left side of her head.
Two medium-dark skinned adult women stand in front of a goldenrod background. The woman on the left faces the viewer and wears a teal head wrap and a red top. The woman on the right faces away from the viewer, showcasing her dark hair braided into an elaborate pattern with colorful beads.
A color photograph featuring two dark skinned women in front of an aqua background. The woman on the left faces the camera. She is wearing a black shirt with gold details on the shoulders and has her brown hair pulled back. The woman on the right stands with her back to the camera wearing a black and tan patterned shirt. Her brown hair is braided in an elaborate pattern and pulled up on top of her head.

Left to right and top to bottom: Sonya Clark, Hair Craft Project Hairstyles (Jamilah Williams), Hair Craft Project Hairstyles (Dionne James Eggleston)Hair Craft Project Hairstyles (Ife Robinson), and Hair Craft Project Hairstyles (Natasha Superville), 2014; From series of eleven color photographs, each 28 x 28 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photos by Naoko Wowsugi

Clark builds many of her larger pieces by fastening together hundreds of small, black, plastic pocket combs. “When I started working with the tools of hairdressing, the tool that I picked is the most ubiquitous, the most common, the most well-known, the most average of combs,” she says. Combining these instruments on a monumental scale, Clark constructs colossal, cascading curls that hang in tight coils. These towering tendrils come to life from a tool that cannot tame them.

A large-scale sculpture of coils of hair, made from black plastic pocket combs. The combs are fastened together in the shape of spiraled curls, which dangle down.
Detached teeth from a black comb are strung together horizontally to create a long strand that twists in the middle and curls at the end.

Top: Sonya Clark, Curls, 2005; Plastic combs, 96 x 36 x 36 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Taylor Dabney; Bottom: Sonya Clark, Lexie’s Curl, 2008; Plastic combs, 30 x 10 x 5 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Clark sometimes applies a reductive sculpting technique to combs, snipping away teeth to make new forms and shapes. To create Toothless, the artist tied together hundreds of plastic combs, evoking a tapestry. As the combs descend, they lose more teeth, and the remains pool below, drawing more attention to what is missing than what remains. “The word ‘comb’ has roots connecting it to the word ‘teeth,’” the artist says. “The work, in that sense, attempts to bite back.”

A large rectangular sculpture made of black, plastic pocket comes attached side by side in rows against a white background. As the combs descend, more and more of their plastic teeth are removed, leaving gaps and open spaces. The removed pieces of comb teeth are pooled at the base of the sculpture.
Detail image of a large rectangular sculpture made of black, plastic pocket comes attached side by side in rows against a white background. As the combs descend, more and more of their plastic teeth are removed, leaving gaps and open spaces. The removed pieces of comb teeth are pooled at the base of the sculpture.

Top to bottom: Sonya Clark, Toothless (and detail), 2014; Plastic combs and zip ties, 75 x 65 x 8 in.; Collection of Pamela K. and William A. Royall, Jr.; © Sonya Clark; Photos by Taylor Dabney

One of the earliest works presented in this exhibition, this sculpture embodies Clark’s longstanding observation that visibility empowers the Black community. The word “breathe” resonates powerfully in contemporary culture, recalling the police killings of George Floyd, Eric Garner, and many others. The evocative word is also the title of a recently published book by scholar Imani Perry, whose writing Clark admires.

An antique hand mirror against a white background. The handle of the mirror is wrapped in light colored cloth. The head of the mirror is a brown, non-reflective material. The word “breathe” has been perforated onto the surface.

Sonya Clark, BREATHE, 1994; Found hand mirror and mica, 13 x 5 x 1 in.; Collection of Rita Grendze; © Sonya Clark; Photo by AndrewYoungPhotography.com

Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend is organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The exhibition is made possible by The Coby Foundation, Ltd., with additional funding provided by Share Fund, Clara M. Lovett, the Sue J. Henry and Carter G. Phillips Exhibition Fund, Stephanie Sale, and the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation.

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A ring of opened, delicate, pale brown cotton pods surrounding a small pile of creamy white and pastel pink flowers made of sugar.

Sonya Clark, Cotton Candy Flower, 2016; Sugar and cotton pods, 3 x 10 x 10 in.; On loan from the artist; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Taylor Dabney