Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker lives on at the Blanton

Madam C.J. Walker (2008) by Sonya ClarkBlanton Museum of Art

This formidable ten-foot portrait by artist Sonya Clark depicts Madam C.J. Walker. Just who was she? Born shortly after the end of slavery, Madam Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) is said to be the nation’s first self-made female millionaire. Orphaned at age seven and widowed with a daughter at twenty, Walker earned fortune and fame by building a prosperous beauty empire, best known for its hair care products. As a businesswoman, she employed thousands of African-American women who would have otherwise been relegated to low-paying jobs.

Madam Walker was also a philanthropist and passionate public speaker. At significant conventions sponsored by major black organizations, she was often the only woman at the podium alongside Booker T. Washington and other black leaders.

Walker flourished as an entrepreneur despite the odds, before Women’s Suffrage and long before the Civil Rights Movement. Her life is captured in one of her most famous statements: “I am a woman from the cotton fields of the South. I was promoted to the washtub. I was promoted to the kitchen. I promoted myself to the business of hair…on my own ground.”

Sonya Clark’s decision to assemble the portrait out of combs was a powerful choice. As she recently explained, “I used 3,840 fine-toothed pocket combs to assemble this image of Walker. Combs speak to Walker’s career as a pioneer of hair care. I also used them because they capture our national legacy of hair culture, and the gender and race politics of hair.

As disposable objects, they parallel the low social status of African-American women born in the late 1800s. But together, the thousands of combs become a monumental tapestry, signifying Walker’s magnitude and success despite her humble beginnings.”

About the Artist: Sonya Clark was born in 1967 in Washington D.C. to a psychiatrist father from Trinidad and a nurse mother from Jamaica. She is a first-generation American and has drawn extensively upon her Caribbean, Scottish, and African ancestry in her work. Her maternal grandmother, a professional tailor, taught Clark how to sew and helped instill an appreciation for craft and the value of the handmade. Her interest in hair emerged at an early age: “When I was growing up in D.C., my family lived across the street from the Ambassador of Benin and his family of fourteen. They lived in a large mansion and always welcomed us. My sister and I would go over there to play and return home with elaborate hairstyles.”

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