Hair Raising Talk
Sonya Clark, Robert Pruitt and Sarah Eckhardt in Conversation at the VMFA
On July 17, 2014, the audience at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond was treated to a lively discussion between Sonya Clark and Robert Pruitt, artists represented in the Identity Shifts: Works from VMFA (April 26- July 27, 2014). The conversation was moderated by Sarah Eckhardt, the VMFA curator who organized the show. The two artists' collective works confront a broad swath of history, science and contemporary culture in provocative ways that reveal their intellectual and emotional preoccupations. Biology and science fiction; African material culture and comics, for example, are a part of the mix. However much of their conversation on this evening centered on that most ideologically entangled part of the human body:hair.
Prior to their sit-down discussion, the artists gave 15-minute presentations about their autobiographical roots, the foundation of their aesthetic and practice. Sonya Clark, chair of the Dept. of Craft/Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University seamlessly blended autobiographical commentary with cultural and scholarly analysis, in her account of the reasons she decided to root her work in textile traditions and to link those traditions to hair, specifically black folks’ hair.
Clark pointed out that she is of Afro-Caribbean and Scottish heritage and these genealogical strains inform her artistic, social, and political sensibility. She recalled growing up in Washington, DC “across the street from a mansion in which the family of an African Ambassador lived and the girls would do [her] hair.”
She drew on her experience when, as an adult artist, as part of her Hair Craft Project exhibit in Richmond, Virginia she asked 11 hair dressers to “do [her] hair," and “engaged them in this question of hairdressing [as] being the first primordial textile form.” For Clark, the practice of braiding was not about vanity but about “ritual,” and the hairstyle was a “monument of that ritual.”
Regarding this hair “monument” notion, Clark noted the ways in which we “read” culture. She cited Roland Barthe’s idea of “punctum” or the “visceral experience” of an image (i.e., that aspect of an image that evokes a strong, unexpected, personal response from the viewer) and discussed how this interpretation of meaning happens for the individual as well as the community.
Clark views hair, her hair, and what she does with her hair, as “public” and “communal.” Many of her artworks contain hair imagery including an actual five dollar bill bearing an engraving of Abraham Lincoln crowned with a large Afro made from black fiber. She later said that Afro Abe piece was a way of honoring our first black president, Barack Obama. She also commented on her piece, Madame CJ Walker (large), in which she used lots of black plastic combs to create a portrait of the early 20th century, African American “self-made millionaire” who got rich by developing and marketing the hair straightening, hot comb.
One of Clark’s most famous and possibly controversial works, on view in the Identity Shifts exhibit, is her Black Hair Flag, inscribing an actual Confederate flag with crownrows and “bantu knots.” Clark was surprised by how frequently she saw confederate flags when she moved to Virginia, including one flying on the VMFA grounds. (Formerly the site of a home for Confederate veterans, the Confederate chapel remained on the grounds and, for a while, bore a Confederate flag until the VMFA ordered its removal.) Clark “wanted to insert the African body” or to “create a stand-in for the African body” onto this flag which has signified contradictory issues to whites and blacks. Clark uses cornrows to create the “stripes” of the flag and to stand for black labor. The bantu knots represent the stars. “For people who are annoyed that the confederate flag is not hanging on the outside of the building, now it’s going to be hanging on the inside of the building. Are you defacing one flag with another flag? Is that possible? I don’t think so.”
In his introductory comments, Robert Pruitt expressed his pleasure in being able to informally converse with Clark about places of difference and convergence in their work. With regard to their shared interested in hair, Pruitt said, “The thing that I’m interested in with hair and other modes of adornment, [is] how a person can project an idea about themselves.” Pruitt pointed out that like Sun Ra, who “claimed to have been abducted by aliens” and wanted to “rescue them and take them to another planet,” he wants to “rescue” black people, to help them see themselves in a historically broader, more powerful way. He uses everything from absurdist amalgamations of Aztec pyramids, comic book heroes, and hip hop culture to achieve his goals.
In an exchange with Clark, Pruitt’s expressed admiration for Clark’s “braided caps” arose from his feeling that they “came from a different period in history, even though they were contemporary. In keeping with his concerns with “space” and notions of about the representation of heroism, Pruitt asked Clark how she found “space for [herself] when space [had] been denied to [her, because he] felt like that’s what her pieces were doing.” Clark responded by expressing her admiration for Pruitt’s work, which coincided with her own concerns for space and architecture, including his “Bridges piece.”
With the curator’s discerning eye, Sarah Eckhardt observed cultural and intellectual commonalities in the works and ideas of the two artists. She reminded both artists of their dialogue with history, referring to Pruitt’s references to artist Dan Flavin in his work and Sonya Clark’s intentional historical references.
Pruitt agreed, suggesting that he didn’t necessarily access other works in conventional ways; he was interested in their juxtapositional and their aggregate value, as represented in Steeped, featured in the Identity Shifts exhibit.
Clark pointed to works in which she “thread-wrapped the backs of combs with color” in order to create a tapestry-like effect, suggesting that the “tapestry is a reworking of Josef Alber’s interaction with color.” “What Albers was saying is if you had a specific color and surrounded it by another color, it would look different if it were surrounded by another color.”
Eckhardt also observed that both artists worked with “loaded cultural symbols” and asked how “those symbols generated their process?” Pruitt’s response was grounded in his concern with exploring cultural trends and his interest in combining cultural elements (whether comic book, hip hop culture, musical or science fiction references such as Sun Ra and this one connecting hair fantasy and sci fi fantasy). Pruitt’s response was in keeping with his synthesizing predilections. “I’m interested in things that come out of the real world, that have a sort of cultural relationship. Referring to pieces where he incorporated guns, he observed that they “have a potent, visceral” impact whether you “own guns or hate guns.”
Sonya Clark, in agreement with Pruitt asserted her interest in taking “quotidian objects,” such as a fine-tooth comb, and exploring the ways in which they culturally “signified” in black culture. Going back to her imposition of Afros on images of famous people, she referred to the piece in which she placed an afro on Abraham Lincoln.
Pruitt went back to pieces such as Steeped (2011) to point to ways in which he used cultural symbols to “engage with history.” The painting’s depiction of a huge, over-the-top Afro rising from a woman’s head like an Aztec monument connects the iconic African American hairstyle to the Aztec Indians in an attempt to achieve “solidarity,” presumably on many levels—cultural, symbolic, spiritual.
The audience listened intently to the congenial exchange between artists and curator. Their questions were often inspired by the artists’ improvisatory responses. Two questions returned to the idea of hair and culture and turned on the idea of identity, which both artists saw as complex and diverse within the black community. The other related to the idea, expressed by Pruitt, that exhibitions could not represent all ideas of black identity.
One questioner summarized the artists’ featured works (Pruitt’s Steeped and Clark’s Confederate Flag) when she stated, “ . . . you mentioned that you like Sonya’s crowns as artifacts, continuing the conversation she started, hair is artifactual. [Your afro piece] in the ‘60s is aspirational; in the ‘90s, straightened hair gained power, because it was represented in the media. Sometimes an image is powerful; sometimes it is ignorant, depending on historical context. The confederate flag with its braided hair represents the blood that was shed to bring the two flags together.”
Pruitt’s response to the questioner’s comment, though personal, nevertheless articulated perhaps one of the over-arching themes of art—changing minds.
“I think back to a specific neighborhood that I grew up in . . . that neighborhood is in stasis . . . why can’t everyone have mobility? The ability to reclaim your body and reclaim your politics . . . it’s a movement of consciousness, which is the most important kind of mobility . . . You can’t privilege one over the other. One is the real world practice, and the other is kinda heady.” In other words, it’s not a matter of privileging one over the over; they are occurring at the same time: when you reclaim your body, you are simultaneously reclaiming your politics. Indeed!
Identity Shifts: Works from VMFA was the companion exhibition to the Posing Beauty in African American Culture exhibition organized by Deborah Willis. This exhibition of works from the VMFA permanent collection featured works by African American artists that use representations of the human figure or some aspect of the body (including hair) to explore how we construct and perceive personal and cultural identity. Works with prominent hair imagery on view in Identity Shifts included Iona Rozeal Brown, a³blackface #59, a comment on the Japanese youth ganguro fad of emulating African American personas that includes adopting cornrows.
Hermine Pinson, Ph.D., is a professor of English and Africana Studies at the College of William and Mary.