Sonya Clark chairs the Department of Craft/Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. Sonya is currently well-represented in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area – she had three simultaneous shows. As part of her inclusion in Minneapolis Institute of Art’s “State of the Arts: Discovering American Art Now,” she recently spoke at that institution, and I was fortunate to go.
Those of us in the bead world may know Sonya best for her unparalleled beaded hands and other bead sculptures, and her Beaded Prayers project. The mail-in portion of the project was completed in 2004; it was a group art project where contributors sent in a square of beadwork with a prayer sealed inside, and you were to make the same to keep for yourself. I participated with some friends, and there is an exhibition catalog. When the exhibition is at new venues, new beaded prayers are added.
For this talk, she concentrated on her other work; all of her work is tied together with the concept that textiles have meaning, and how we are in connection with people across time who have been involved with textiles.
Sonya’s ancestry is from Trinidad, Jamaica, Yoruba, and Scotland. Yoruba has a celebration with a figure bedecked in strips of cloth – whispering cloth, celebrating ancestry and roots. “This is yours too,” Sonya told us, “We all came from Africa.”
She traveled to Africa, and learned how to weave traditional strips of cloth; men traditionally wove, and a man taught her. They had no shared language: he would weave, then unweave, then Sonya would weave until she got the pattern correct. She would learn the pattern, then he would unweave her work because she wasn’t getting the selvedges correct. She would get the pattern and selvedges correct, and then he would unweave because she was not holding her body in the right way.
Sonya explores the relationships between text and textiles – in kente cloth, the patterns are proverbs and have meaning. In Detroit, she wove pictures in strip woven cloth, using those African techniques on a European loom. The proverbs woven were of fertility, growth, self-sufficiency, and advancement — and a woven American flag. Sonya asked African-Americans to tie the cloth on their head and say what they were thinking. Some displayed both American and African portions of the cloth, and some chose just one.
“We mark ourself through our cloth.” Sonya’s Scottish roots are the McHardy clan, and she wove her clan tartan from bagasse, the fiber remaining after squeezing the juice out of sugar cane. Sugar cane is the reason that her ancestors ended up to Jamaica. Sonya wove 18′ of bagasse McHardy clan tartan, enough to make a kilt. Her vision was to take formal portraits of her family wrapped in the cloth on a trip to Jamaica for a family funeral. (But when to approach people for this? Someone finally pried out of her what was in her bag.) She returned with pictures of smiling people in rows on benches, draped together with the tartan. “I thought I was making art, instead I made an heirloom.”
One media Sonya is exploring is hair; she has been interested in hair braiding for a long time. As a young child, she had her hair braided by daughters of the ambassador of Benin. “I could be sculpture and art. My hair could be sculpture and art.” She understood braiding as a sacred art form and ritual activity. Sonya made a series of 12 wigs attempting to remember some of those wonderful braids. All but one were from memory as there is just one extant photograph.
Other hair pieces are the 44 Afro Abes she made to honor Obama’s presidency, giving the Abraham Lincoln on the dollar bill an afro. Her Heritage Pearls are “pearls” of her hair, in a beautiful presentation box. Sonya strung violin bows of hair – a blonde one and a dreadlocked one made of her hair – for Sounding the Ancestors. Jazz violinist and African-American woman Regina Carter played and recorded using these bows.
Another media that Sonya is using is the ubiquitous black pocket comb. She showed us a picture of Iterations, a “family tree” of combs going back ten generations, as there is a Yoruba saying, “You don’t know who you are until you can name yourself 1ten generations back.”
Sonya made a comb portrait of the first self-made woman millionaire, Madam CJ Walker – not just the first black self-made woman millionaire, but the first woman millionaire. She sold hair products. “There’s activism in hair salons.”
More: she made the McHardy plaid design out of combs. Sonya then started wrapping the spine of the combs to incorporate color, and created Kente Comb Cloth.
Showing now at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in “State of the Arts” is her homage to Joseph and Anni Albers. Joseph’s book, Interaction of Color, is an art school classic showing how color is relative, always affected by its context. Sonya used this to create her Albers Interaction series, an homage to Joseph and Anni (a celebrated weaver) with textiles and color and a comb wrap. Her studio assistant thought it was too complicated, if Sonya had to explain the piece that much. Sonya simplified it to peach and brown tones, the color of skin.
She has created works using the Confederate flag; the Black Hair Flag with braids tied in the flag, and Unraveled/Unraveling. For the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Sonya started unraveling the Confederate flag by hand.
Hair is the first textile art form. For her last project discussed, the Hair Craft Project, 12 hairdressers braided her hair, and Sonya had her head photographed and wore her braids with a card for each hairdresser in her pocket to hand out to admirers. “I don’t think of myself as an activist, but I do think everything is political.” The showing of her photographed braids in a Richmond gallery was the most diverse audience that gallery has ever seen, including people from the Richmond art community to the family and friends of the braiders/artists and their community.
Finally, for inspiration and for rumination, here’s what Sonya tells her art students:
Find your authentic obsession
Connect it to others
Never let it go.