Roanoke

Follicular: The Hair Stories of Sonya Clark at the Taubman Museum of Art

Follicular: The Hair Stories of Sonya Clark at the Taubman Museum of Art highlights the historically rich and embodied power of Black hair, demonstrating that hair is a medium as well as a message.[1] For Clark, whose work holds a significant place in the burgeoning discourse of American contemporary craft, Black hair is an aesthetic language on par with the legacies of quilting and textile work, exposing a shared system of enunciations articulated throughout time. Shaped and styled by the hands of hairdressers in barbershops, salons, and living rooms across the world, these works of art grant prestige and craftsmanship to those who use hair as a vehicle for virtuosity and expression, while simultaneously giving beauty and power to those who sit before them. Working across a range of material media and genres, from photography and sculpture to poetry and participatory practices, Clark teases out the collaborative, communal, and political nature of hairdressing by inviting viewers to understand hair as a marker of cultural, racial, and gendered identity.

Sonya Clark. The Hair Craft Project: Hairstyles on Canvas, 2013; silk threads, beads, shells, and yarn on canvas; 29 x 29 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, VA.

Sonya Clark. The Hair Craft Project: Hairstyles on Canvas, 2013; silk threads, beads, shells, and yarn on canvas; 29 x 29 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, VA.

The exhibition is structured around a series of nine collaborative pairings, which mark the shared personal and artistic bonds between Clark and her hairdressers. In The Hair Craft Project, photographs of hairstylists and their intricate creation with Clark’s hair sit above a painstakingly sewn pattern on a blank canvas below. Oscillating equally and productively between the applied practice of hairdressing and its appropriation into a fine art object, these dual images encourage the viewer to make linkages between the traditional techniques of fiber arts, such as weaving and embroidery, and the complicated patterns and improvisational designs that elegantly swarm the head of the wearer. The modest smiles that each hairdresser displays in the photographs belie the crisp accuracy and intense manipulations their materials succumb to under their discerning eyes, and reaffirm a historical continuum between the artist and her collaborators. Each braid and twist is a sacred act, bound up with rituals, traditions, and ancestral worship that structure the traumatic history of Black aesthetics. As Clark has stated, slaves removed from Africa “may have arrived empty-handed, but in fact their hands held memories of particular ways of working, making, and moving materials” that they took with them to the “New World.”[2] Thus, these images remind us of the historical continuum that undulates within these embodied material processes.

Sonya Clark. The Hair Craft Project: Hairstylists with Sonya (Jamilah Williams), 2013; inkjet photograph; 28 x 28 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, VA.

Sonya Clark. The Hair Craft Project: Hairstylists with Sonya (Jamilah Williams), 2013; inkjet photograph; 28 x 28 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, VA.

Alongside Clark’s commitment to making the work of these hairdressers visible is a poetic attention to the tools used to gather hair into submission—specifically, fine-tooth combs. The most arresting of these works is Toothless (2014), made up of hundreds of black combs linked together horizontally, stretching wide across a segment of the gallery wall like a tapestry or quilt. As the eye descends from the top to the bottom of the work, the black combs become increasingly “toothless”—the thin black teeth disappear in a staggered rhythm as the work unfurls towards the ground, finally gathering in a shallow pool on the floor. Combs pull at the roots of hair, stretch out kinks, displace knots, and move strands to new positions. In this way, combs are utilitarian, but they also shape and interrupt hair’s “becoming”—its unfurling into space and time. Thus, they resonate as objects that carry forth transformation and creative possibility when used by an experienced practitioner. It is this connection between creativity and becoming that Clark stages in these comb-sculptures, turning these simple objects into metaphors for Black identity, pride, and aesthetic tradition.

Sonya Clark. Toothless, 2014; combs; 75 x 65 x 8 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, VA.

Sonya Clark. Toothless, 2014; combs; 75 x 65 x 8 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, VA.

The climax of the exhibition is Pluck and Grow (2015-present), Clark’s homage to hair as expressed through a participatory installation. The piece invites the viewer to share and reflect upon their own “hair stories,” and to think thoughtfully about the role that hair plays in shaping identity. “For hair is a material that links humans genetically” and is thus inherently bound up with notions of heritage and individuality.[3] Silkscreened stories and poems—some decipherable, some not—are written on brown paper, which are then twisted into hair forms and inserted into the wall. Pluck and Grow invites the exhibition-goer to take a follicle from the wall, read the story, and then replace the “strand” with their own memory about hair written on a white scrap of paper. Over time, the piece becomes “older and wiser” as more brown strands are replaced with new, white ones, carrying within their twisted folds the memories, secrets, and frustrations of all who pass through Clark’s piece. These paper hairs stand in for the follicular foundations of textile work as well as the permutations inherent in one’s own subjectivity—the threads that tie, bind, and link us to our histories and identities, both biological and constructed.

Sonya Clark. Pluck and Grow, 2015-present; dyed paper; 72 x 48 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, VA.

Sonya Clark. Pluck and Grow, 2015-present; dyed paper; 72 x 48 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, VA.

Follicular: The Hair Stories of Sonya Clark will be on view at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia through May 14, 2017.

 


[1] My thanks must go to Dr. Amy Moorefield (Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Collections), Ms. Eva Thorton (Curatorial Coordinator), and Ms. Sunny Nelson (Deputy Director of Marketing and Communications) at The Taubman Museum of Art for all their help and support in the writing and researching of this article.

[2] See Dr. Namita Gupta Wigger’s exhibition catalogue essay, “Sonya Clark: Corporeal Materiality,” for the exhibition Sonya Clark at the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, Texas, 2011, pg. 11.

[3] Quote pulled from curator Amy Moorefield’s short essay for the Taubman Museum of Art’s exhibition guide to Follicular: The Hair Stories of Sonya Clark.

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