Cultivated Hair

That most personal textile as a medium and subject for art

Marlisa Sanders

Artist Sonya Clark. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

For more than two decades, artist Sonya Clark has been obsessed with hair.  No, she does not wear a weave.  Rather, she’s fascinated with the infinite sculptural possibilities suggested by the squiggly lines emanating from black folks’ heads.   Now, as chair of Virginia Commonwealth University's craft/material studies department and recipient of prestigious art prizes, Clark is making headlines of her own.  

Sonya Clark, Black Hair Flag. Photo: courtesy of artist.Sonya Clark is one of the few contemporary artists that draw from an interest in African American hair to create both life-like and fanciful art works.  She uses the hair theme to address African American race and identity issues.

Sonya Clark, Detail of Adrienne's Tale. Photo: courtesy of artist.Clark became a fiber artist because she was interested in the cultural meaning of textiles: the manipulation of fibers into practical and often aesthetic forms.  This interest led Clark to consider what the first textile art form in history might be. Her answer: hairdressing. 

Sonya Clark, Adrienne's Tale. Photo: courtesy of artist.“I grew up braiding my hair and my sister’s hair, so in one sense, like many black women, I had been preparing to be a textile artist for a very long time,” Clark says.

Sonya Clark, Madam C.J. Walker. Photo: courtesy of artist.Clark’s interest in West African cultures also stems back to her childhood.  Growing up in Washington, D.C., she lived across the street from the home of the ambassador of Benin.  “Many Saturdays in the 1970s, my sister and I would go across the street to play with their children.  Inevitably we would land in the sacred space between the women’s or older girls’ knees,” Clark recalls.   “We would emerge with elaborate, fantastic, sculptural hairstyles.  After hours of being in the company of these wonderful, warm women, we would return home with our heads honored by their works of art.”

Sonya Clark, Detail of Madam C.J. Walker. Photo: courtesy of artist.While Clark was a student at Amherst College, she made a big decision that many black women struggle with: the big chop.  She decided to cut her shoulder-length, relaxed hair and began wearing her hair in a short, natural style.  Although she enjoyed the practicality of her new hair and loved her new style, the haircut also left her feeling that she was missing out on the special, woman- to-woman, sharing, caring and gossip that comes with regular trips to the hair salon.   

Sonya Clark, Abe's Fro. Photo: courtesy of artist.Clark’s parents gave her a trip to West Africa as a gift when she graduated from Amherst with a B.A. in psychology.  In Africa, she learned how to weave and dye traditional textiles such as kente, adire and korogho.  Upon her return, she worked a few years and saved money to go to art school; she wanted to combine psychology, art and cultural history into one pursuit. 

Sonya Clark, Interations. Photo: courtesy of artist.In the BFA program at the Art Institute of Chicago, Clark researched the traditions of Yoruba regal caps and gowns and other African headdresses.  (She had also researched headdresses while at Amherst.)  “I manifested that research into art work at the Art Institute under the guidance of my teacher, friend, and mentor, Nick Cave; and in graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art with Gerhardt Knodel.”  In recent years, Nick Cave’s work has exploded onto the mainstream art scene.  

Sonya Clark, Corn Row Chair. Photo: courtesy of artist.Clark learned that in Yoruba culture, as in many places throughout the African Diaspora, the head is a sacred place.  The people of Yoruba see the head as the site of the soul.  When styling their hair, they are more concerned with ritual than vanity.   Their hairdresses are more like altars than fashion.  This concept helped guide the direction of Clark’s work.  Her mature body of work includes imaginary hats and head coverings as well as rendering of hair styles.

Clark’s first major gallery exhibition, Parted, Plaited, and Piled, was at the Leedy Voulkos Gallery in Kansas City, MO, in 1998.  Art historian Jacqueline Francis interviewed Clark for a review of the show in a 1998 issue of the International Review of African American Art.  During the interview, Clark said that her work is “about woman power.”   She readily draws “connections between women and life’s energies, from the miracle of birth to magnificent hairstyles,” observed Francis.

In 2001 Clarkwas among a handful of contemporary artists cited in “The Culture of Hair Cultureessay by Juliette Harris in the book,   Tenderheaded: A Comb-Bending Collection of Hair Stories.

“Kink’s acute, complicated curl makes the hair springy and elastic, texturious and thick—qualities perfectly suited for sculpture,” writes Harris in the intro to the piece.  “Of course kink can be challenging—it will grab on itself like Velcro and make the most intricate knots known to humanity.  But the challenge of animated kink has been the incentive to produce art!”   Sonya Clark has brilliantly met that challenge!

For an exhibit at the Museum of Artand Design, Second Lives Remixing the Ordinary (September 27, 2008-February 15, 2009), organized by Lowery S. Sims, Clark repurposed combs to make an 11-foot-high portrait of Madame C. J. Walker.  The piece is amazing because, without the addition of any other materials, the combs formed a strong likeness of this pioneer of African American hair care. 

Clark is currently working on a second, large portrait of Madame C. J. Walker for a commission in Indianapolis that will be installed later this year.  With three upcoming solo exhibits in South Carolina, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, she also is developing the Hair Craft Project.  With this project she will be working with hairdressers in the creation of artworks that reside in the worlds between contemporary art and hairstyling.

Sonya Clark’s artwork has been exhibited in over 250 museums and galleries in Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, Australia and throughout the United States.  She has also received many honors and awards for exceptional work.  These include the Pollock-Krasner award, a Rockefeller Foundation Residency in Italy, a Red Gate Residency in China, and a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship in Italy.

In 2011, she was named a USA Glasgow Fellow from United States Artists and awarded a $50,000 unrestricted grant.  As she has done with her other monetary awards, Clark has donated some of the grant money to local art programs to help future generations of artists. 

Marlisa Sanders is an editorial assistant at the International Review of African American Art.