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. 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.
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.” Thus, these images remind us of the historical continuum that undulates within these embodied material processes.