Artist Spotlight: Sonya Clark

Explore artworks from textile and social practice artist Sonya Clark and hear her take on a selection of artworks featured in the Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend exhibition.

National Museum of Women in the Arts

Sonya Clark (2020) by Nicholas CalcottNational Museum of Women in the Arts

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

For more than two decades, textile and social practice artist Sonya Clark has transformed common objects into works that probe identity and visibility, appraise the force of the African Diaspora, and propose an amended version of history. She stitches, braids, unravels, and weaves recognizable materials such as human hair, plastic combs, glass beads, and flags.

Hair Wreath (2002) by Sonya ClarkNational Museum of Women in the Arts

The Primordial Textile

Clark legitimizes hair as a point of commonality for peoples of the African diaspora, a fact that emphasizes the active legacy of the forced African exodus in the global present. She demonstrates this relevance through humor, irony, and pointed critique that takes many forms.

Cotton to Hair (2009) by Sonya ClarkNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Cotton to Hair (1)
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Sonya Clark discusses "Cotton to Hair" (2009)

The materials really matter in this piece. It’s made out of human hair, which happens to be my hair, the artist’s hair, an African American woman’s hair. It is both personal and collective. It is my hair, but it stands in for the hair of all people of African descent who have been forcibly migrated or whose ancestors were forcibly migrated to this part of the world.

Cotton to Hair (2)
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On the other part is cotton, a cotton ball that was plucked directly from a cotton plant. And then the bronze makes up the stem of this cotton plant. Bronze is usually used for big sculptures and monuments.

Cotton to Hair (3)
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Here, we have a subtle monument to the labor of African Americans, the labor that we provided to this nation, and the labor that we provided globally to increase the economics of nations around the world during the transatlantic slave trade route. This is a monument to our labor. This is an acknowledgment of our humanity.

Afro Abe II (2012) by Sonya ClarkNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Afro Abe II (1)
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Sonya Clark discusses "Afro Abe II" (2010)

With this piece, I wanted to collapse 1860s and the 1960s, to think about what it meant for the great emancipator to meet the Black liberators. And Afro Abe was born.

Afro Abe II (2)
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We know that Abraham Lincoln made an economic decision, as well as, one might argue, of course, a moral decision, when he was freeing people who had been subjugated and made unfree. But I’ll tell you this—these five-dollar bills, these Afro Abes, they’re much more valuable with those afros. Not a one of them has sold for five dollars.

Ties That Bind (2013) by Sonya ClarkNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Triangulation

With ancestral roots in Jamaica, Trinidad, Nigeria, and Scotland, Clark explores the connections among Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and her own family through works that allude to the sugar trade, and thereby the transatlantic slave trade.

Mom’s Wisdom or Cotton Candy (2011) by Sonya ClarkNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Mom's Wisdom or Cotton Candy

Clark’s photograph depicts the artist’s hands cradling a mound of her mother’s white hair. The title, Mom's Wisdom or Cotton Candy, references her maternal family’s Jamaican ancestry and the island’s history of sugar production.

Mom's Wisdom or Cotton Candy
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Sonya Clark discusses "Mom's Wisdom or Cotton Candy" (2011)

This piece is an homage to my most recent ancestor, my mother, Lilleth Ruby (McHardy) Clark, who passed away in 2018. She routinely saved her hair for me, and I would separate the dark strands from the white to preserve her wisdom. Much in the way that the Yoruba people say that when one’s hair turns white, it’s an example that your soul has become truly wise.

Schiavo/Ciao (2019) by Sonya ClarkNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Excavating Language

Fascinated by linguistics and etymology, Clark is acutely aware that inflections, abbreviations, and the varied meanings of words allow language to reveal and conceal. Excavating language is one way that she lays bare the embedding of the past in the present.

Schiavo/Ciao (2019) by Sonya ClarkNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Schiavo/Ciao (1)
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Sonya Clark discusses "Schiavo/Ciao" (2019)

It’s a funny thing, words. What you’re standing before is a neon sign flashing the word “SCHIAVO,” which might not be a word that you’re familiar with unless you speak Italian. But you’re probably more familiar with the word “ciao,” a little cosmopolitan way of saying “hello” and “goodbye.”

Schiavo/Ciao (2)
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“Ciao” comes directly from the word “schiavo.” You can see that visually here. The word literally comes out of “SCHIAVO.” They have roots together; one might even say they are from the same tree. “Schiavo” means slave, and when we are saying “ciao” to one another, we’re saying, “I am your slave. I am yours.” And in this way, we think about those deep roots of empires, and how systems and cultures built empires, and on whose back.

Unraveling (2015) by Sonya ClarkNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Unraveling Invisibility

For her performative Unraveling, Clark invites gallery and museum visitors to work with her, side by side, to carefully pull individual threads from a heavy, tightly woven Confederate battle flag. The process manifests, Clark explains, “the slow and deliberate work of unraveling racial dynamics in the United States.”

Unraveling (detail, performance) (2015) by Sonya ClarkNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Unraveling (1)
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Sonya Clark discusses "Unraveling" (2015)

Unraveling is a performative piece. I would ask people to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me as we would pair together, and with our hands, we would undo, thread by thread, this symbol of hate: the Confederate battle flag, popularly known as the Confederate flag, though there are many. This is just the one that became most popular, most well-known, because of the Ku Klux Klan.

Unraveling (2)
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We would stand together, and people would come to understand how this cloth was made in the unmaking of it. They would also understand what slow work it is to actually undo it, but necessary work, satisfying work, work that must be done.

Sonya Clark’s prowess as a maker, historian, and visionary is evident in her body of work. In material as well as subject matter, she centers Black identity and experience in histories from which it has been forcibly removed. Her work demonstrates not only her keen ability to expound on a subject, but also her intuitive understanding of how the present unwinds from the past and twists through to the future.

Learn more about the Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend exhibition on NMWA's website.

Credits: Story

Portrait of Sonya Clark by and courtesy of Nicholas Calcott.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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