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Arts & Culture

Clark weaves African-American DNA into Confederate 'Black Hair Flag'

Photo: Jung-hee Mun, License: N/A, Created: 2011:12:08 07:13:53

Jung-hee Mun

Installation view of Sonya Clark solo show at Southwest School of Arts. Foreground, Lawn. Madam CJ Walker in background; Barbershop Pole on right.

There is nothing more common than a haircut. Curly, straight, or woven in braids, the way we wear the fibers that sprout from our heads tells the world who we are; more than social signifier, it's sculptural material, too. “Hairdressers are by every indication artists. Absolutely,” Sonya Clark told the Current. “Their art has agency — it walks around, you don't have to go to a gallery to see it. In my next life I would like to come back as a hairdresser.”

Clark's solo show at the Southwest School of Art fixates on hair, especially dense African hair. Using overlays and transformations, she tells stories that are uniquely American. In Black Hair Flag, the battle flag of the Confederacy is sewn through with black fibers; cornrows make the stripes, Bantu knots form the stars of the Stars and Stripes. The hybrid design that emerges asserts the presence of black people in the making of American modernity. Another piece placed nearby in the exhibition, Cornrow Chair, also uses the cornrow motif. Clark has taken a wooden armchair of awkward proportions, which she describes as “a collection of decorative and functional parts.” Underneath and behind the seat are rows of running braids. Invisible from the front, the cornrows speak of the labor that black hands brought to this country — largely invisible, or unacknowledged by those in the seat of power. “You could sit on the chair and be blissfully unaware of the back forty,” said Clark.

Clark refers to African hair through deft interweavings of thread in many of her works. She also uses her own hair, and that of her friends and her mother, as elements in her pieces, bringing more than design — but actual DNA — to her art.

Other works address the art of hairdressing as an example of craftwork, of transformation. They reveal that aesthetic judgments are transient, but never without social consequences.

Barbershop Pole is a sleek stylized version of its namesake. Nearby is Madam CJ Walker, a large wall-covering depiction of Sarah Breedlove McWilliams, aka Madam Walker, who became the first African-American millionaire through the sale of hair care products that helped women straighten their “bad” hair into “good” hair. Like Lawn, a rolling horizontal piece set in the center of the exhibition, the three pieces are made of hundreds of the fine-toothed combs that were once ubiquitous in the back pockets of men of a certain age. Men with straight, fine hair.

Big, fluffy afros cover Abe Lincoln's head on a five-dollar bill. A series of fivers show the 'fro growing larger and larger still. Yes, it's funny in a slapstick way; but it's also a comment on the need for minstrelsy. “Why does Abe with an afro get a laugh, but the image of a black woman with straightened hair is not funny; it's just acceptable?” Clark asked. “When Donald Trump wears an afro to the boardroom and no one thinks it's funny — then we'll know the playing field has been leveled. But I don't think it's going to happen in my lifetime.” 

Clark, currently the chair of the Department of Craft/Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, has received the Pollack-Krasner grant and support from the Smithsonian and the Rockefeller foundations to pursue her work. Last year she was designated a United States Artist Fellow.

Free; 9am-5pm Mon-Sat; 11am-4pm Sun; Russel Hill Rogers Gallery 1, Navarro Campus, 1201 Navarro, (210) 224-1848, On view to Feb 12.

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