We sometimes visit the hair salon for change, almost as if we are asking for a new identity. Hair not only comprises our physical appearance but it marks out our lives with various styles and length. Molecularly, hair follicles contain our actual DNA, but also, somehow, our spiritual selves. Using hair as subject matter, contemporary fiber artist Sonya Clark weaves a cultural tapestry of the very fabric of our community. Physically, she allows for a mindful build-up of elaborate textures that, in many ways, represent a landscape of places and people. Inherently, a history is formed—a tactile topography where a wealth of cultural wisdom emerges from Clark’s mind and through the collaborative hands of other artisans.
Trained as a fiber artist, Sonya Clark draws from her heritage. Specifically—materially, through her interest in African American hair. Her series “The Hair Craft Project” encompasses photography and fiber arts where Clark introduces something very beautiful, selfless, and unexpected. In the spirit of collaboration and with craftswomen in mind, Clark digs deep into her personal communities to invite hairstylists to use her head…as a canvas.
“Hairdressers are my heroes. The poetry and politics of Black hair care specialists are central to my work as an artist and educator. Rooted in a rich legacy, their hands embody an ability to map a head with a comb and manipulate the fiber we grow into complex form. These artists have mastered a craft impossible for me to take for granted.”
Hairstylists/barbers are important, prominent occupations in our local communities. Like any serious discipline, styling and grooming hair is a complicated and time-enveloping craft. Close relationships inevitably form through ritual and vanity. These bonding friendships come across beautifully in this exhibit. The works comprising “The Hair Craft Project” manifest in an intimate narrow gallery space at the heart of The Fed Galleries, Kendall College of Art and Design. One side of the long gallery space is lined with ten large-scale photographs, the opposite side contains the paired wall weavings on canvas of similar size. The photographs themselves, with their saturated backgrounds, are forces. In each image, Clark stands with her back to the viewer, prominently modeling every unique hairstyle design as if she were a walking sculpture. The design is foremost, close, tight-weaved and revealing the sculptural contours of Clark’s head. To the left in the the photographs, the individual hairdresser proudly addresses the viewer. Featured in this series are Kamala Bhagat, Dionne James Eggleston, Marsha Johnson, Chaunda King, Anita Hill Moses, Nasirah Muhammad, Jameika and Jasmine Pollard, Ingrid Riley, Ife Robinson, Natasha Superville, and Jamilah Williams.
On the opposite side of the narrow gallery, so that they are paired with each photograph, the wall weavings stand as interpretive works executed by each of the hairdressers represented in the photograph. These works are slightly less traditional and yet magnificent personal abstract art. Each wall weaving consists of a stretched canvas substrate, square and minimal, clearing the stage for each complex sculptural weaving. Clark’s materials of threads or cords have a linear, pliable element and the softness of the crocheted, knotted, sculptural forms are textures that invite the hand. Because their scale is human, if we imagine we are able to act upon our impulses, it would be an intimate stroke. The crowns of our heads have spiritual connotations. A life force flows from the top of our heads. This is a place of thought, conjuring love, where a halo might be symbolized, and brings up vivid storytelling, such as the tale of Samson and Delilah, and Rapunzel.
The dark silk thread representing hair, particularly, African American hair, is inventive, playful, and very powerful. Close up, their varied patterns are keenly manipulated into buttresses; coils of twisting braids curve like fingers that seek to identify and enhance points of connection and tension. It’s as if, through Clark’s methodologies, she expresses that even as we try to impose our will on nature, nature imposes its anarchy back on us. Here Clark engages us with these works as abstract art but also these are contemporary cultural artifacts that reference history in multi-facets of intersecting threads and braids.
Every skillful hair tapestry adeptly explores certain personal symbolic interpretations of each craftswomen. And yet, we are all part of a vast tapestry. Through materials and processes Clark’s art contains wonderful accounts of the ways in which the artists and craftspeople of our immediate community come together to form our cultural landscape. And because the thread takes us adeptly to the larger metaphors: warp and weft becomes identity, and family, community, the workplace, and the world. Here is where life inevitably tangles. And “The Hair Craft Project” does it so elegantly. Exploring the importance of urban place for identity and individuals, Clark touches human lives, our lives. On the tangle-braiding of community, cultural value is expressed appropriately as “The Hair Craft Project” is centered in the context of the larger exhibition series, “I AM: Money Matters” focusing on currency, consumption, and value.*
Viewing photographs of actual sculpted hair and then physically exploring the wall weavings in “The Hair Craft Project” transforms the familiar into a metaphorical construct. Crossing through the images and weavings I imagine a space that follows a meticulous and yet open conceptual map. Here I envision a community that contains all human cultures, addressing class, race, and identity. It is through this acknowledgement that Clark highlights the talents embedded within the landscape of her community and culture. Or rather, she surrenders to the beautiful hand of community. “The Hair Craft Project” exemplifies a dedication to craft, especially in the fiber arts, where weaving, stitching, and adorning with feminine sensibility shows us that an arduous craft is imbued with a sense of time and stirred with storytelling. In doing so, these embroidered threads contain the pattern of time.
There are many threads that run throughout our lives. The very fabric of our culture is a complex tapestry of these threads crossing and weaving. Everything around us is in constant flux. In life, nothing is ever really fixed in place but rather everything interacts in dynamic relationships, especially as we settle for a while in the communities in which we reside. We all touch, all walks of life; these threads snag and tangle—ignorance, self interest, cultural indifference, dogmatic and outdated belief systems that are not our own to begin with. But as we take hold of the thread of life, we should be careful because we touch others. By holding onto these threads of life, we leave ourselves the chance to find our own way, though all the while we should caution ourselves that we touch others. When this happens, we weave tapestries.
* Clark was co-winner of the 2014 ArtPrize Grand Juried Prize. This was the first year the Juried Grand Prize panel actually decided on a split of the $200,000 prize. (Her co-winner was Anila Quayyum Agha’s excellent meditative installation, “Intersections”).