Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
At yesterday’s List Gallery opening, Sonya Clark shared her own artistic journey in a lecture that reflected on the importance of “hair, heritage, and community” in her work. The gallery will be exhibiting Clark’s precisely arranged sculptures using fine-toothed combs in complex, interwoven configurations through April 4.
Clark considers herself “firmly craft artist and also a sculptor,” who studied textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago and whose “fiber knowledge” greatly informs her work. She explained her desire to work with cloth as a medium that “everybody understands… We read clothing all the time.” Clark references her “fiber knowledge” throughout her work, finding the language of cloth to be usefully universal. “Clothing,” she explained, “becomes a symbol of one’s identity.”
This connection was influenced in part by her studies of West African textile work. Clark travelled to West Africa to “understand what cloth meant,” and her discoveries yielded the language of strip woven cloth that “can literally be read” in terms of the proverbs and ideas that various patterns evoke. Clark has been able to draw upon the patterns and symbols that she discovered in West Africa in her own work.
Studying Yoruba culture, to which Clark has traced her own heritage, also led Clark to recognize the importance of the head and hair. “Among the Yoruba there is a sense that the soul is centered in your head,” she noted. Clark was especially interested in how hair wrapping had an effect of making the head larger than life.
After returning to the U.S., Clark’s turn from textile to the possibilities of hairstyling seemed natural enough as “the first textile art form was hairstyling.” Her interest in hairstyling was also influenced by her childhood experiences when her neighbors would create “sculpture with my hair.” One of her early works was a series that recreated various hair styles whose patterns followed the Fibonacci sequence.
From hairstyles Clark turned her attention to a different part of the style process after a repetitive stress injury sparked her father’s suggestion that she honor her hands. Turning to hands, Clark created several small, humorous beaded pieces about hands, including a box of 1000 small beaded hands designed to function like a box of milagros, to be given and taken like good luck charms. The charm seemed to work for Clark, who recovered from her injury.
In addition to fiber and beadwork, Clark has also worked using real human hair, and described the process of collecting and felting hair as well as the importance of respecting the hair-donor’s wishes in not selling the hair. Clark described the process of felting her own hair into dreadlocks for the purposes of a self-portrait and a work designed to honor her mother incorporating both her and her mother’s hair.
Clark’s most “recent obsession of about four years” has been the comb, and the pieces exhibited in the List are representative of this interest. Clark has remained true to her interest in weaving and pattern, creating dense pile effects and shades of gray by intercrossing combs with broken teeth.
Her work can be humorous, as in a piece in which lice combs are becoming lice, and often pays thoughtful attention to multiple perspectives of her subject. This is the case in her portrait of Madam C.J. Walker produced in a positive-negative diptych that references to Walker’s controversial heritage, viewed both as a pioneering African-American businesswoman and millionaire and as a sell-out for being the “woman who taught African Americans how to straighten their hair.”
Clark used the Hegelian idea of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis to explain her use of combs. Where the comb is “intended to bring order,” Clark sees hair in its raw state as the antithesis of this. Her work bridges the two by making combs become hair, creating split ends and curls.
As became clear in the Q&A session of Clark’s lecture, Clark’s interest in “collaborative wisdom” is extended to her work. Clark’s beaded prayer project, which she started in 1999, now includes over 5000 beaded packets from 40 different countries. The honeycomb piece in the List is also a collaborative work, community-built and Clark points to her studio assistants, “the best… in the world,” as well in citing the importance of working together as opposed to in isolation.