RICHMOND, Va. ― Comb through the life story of Sonya Clark and it’s easy to see how she came to craft works of art themed around hair, a provocative and politicized thread of identity.
Her maternal grandmother was a tailor in Jamaica who taught her to sew and gave her an appreciation for things handmade. As a young child, she possessed weak eyesight and a keen sense of touch. Her childhood home in Washington was across the street from that of the Beninese ambassador, whose teenage daughters practiced intricate African hairstyles on young Sonya.
At Amherst College in Massachusetts, she took classes under a foremost African art historian, Rowland Abiodun. At the Art Institute of Chicago, she studied under a noted fabric sculptor (Nick Cave) and a visual artist (Anne Wilson) who stitched with human hair.
“It’s all just confluence. We’re the sum of our experiences, right?” said Clark, chairwoman of the Department of Craft/Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts. She learned Braille “because I’m interested in tactile things. I’m interested in hair as a language. So why not go to a tactile language?”
Clark’s sense of touch—and her appreciation of hair as a connective fiber through which narratives can be spun—recently won her the Juried Grand Prize at ArtPrize 2014, an international art competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Her winning entry, “The Hair Craft Project,” enlisted about a dozen local hairdressers to style her hair, which was photographed along with the hairstylists. Clark also provided them with a canvas hand-stitched with silk thread and asked the hairstylists to braid the thread using their skills and techniques.
Clark, 47, says the award reaffirms an idea “that has been burning in my belly for so long, that the traditions and the improvisations of hairstyling techniques that have stayed resonant in the African diaspora are unabashedly art.”
She called the honor a testament to the work of the hairdressers and said the prize will allow her to recoup some of the money she spent on the project and to pursue new ones.
“And when the art world is good to me, I always try to support an up-and-coming art student, so I will be giving a scholarship to a VCU graduate student as well,” she said.
“She is truly a gift,” said Beverly Reynolds, owner of the Reynolds Gallery. She lauded Clark for “her support of other artists, her giving of herself … her caring about the community, about the stylists, and giving them a voice.”
Reynolds said Clark imbues her work with history and culture “in a way that’s very poignant and strong and is very new. She has her own personal direction. … She’s a phenomenal artist, and it’s remarkable that she’s here in Richmond.”
Clark received half of the $200,000 Juried Grand Prize, which she split with artist Anila Quayyum Agha after jurors concluded that each artist deserved to be recognized.
“I think it is probably the most important art award in the country,” Reynolds said. “To receive that is a remarkable honor, and I think it reflects strongly on Richmond and VCU, the talent that is here on an international level.”
Clark started the yearlong project with a grant from CultureWorks and a stated desire to place it in a gallery near the Broad Street hairdressing community, “and 1708 was perfect for that.”
Executive Director Emily Smith called the project “a high note for 1708 Gallery. We were as thrilled to give Clark the space to execute it as we were to witness how meaningful the experience was for the participating stylists.”
The Hair Craft Project will be in Grand Rapids through January. In August, it will be shown at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Anyone who doubts that hair is political need only view Clark’s reimagining of Abraham Lincoln as “Afro Abe.” In another piece, nearly a thousand black combs inhabit a work on her studio wall—the missing teeth and toothless combs the embodiment of struggle. “Black Hair Flag” blends the U.S. and Confederate battle flags, with stars made of Bantu knots and stripes consisting of cornrows.
That work was inspired by former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s issuance of a Confederate History Month proclamation that made no mention of slavery.
When Clark cut off her own hair while at Amherst in the 1980s, it was less about politics than practicality. But, “I do remember that I was getting hugs from Black women whom I did not know, congratulating me. And that’s when I realized that my hair was not my own, that it belonged to a collective.”
Today, a growing number of African-American women have joined Clark in wearing their hair natural and unstraightened.
As a psychology major at Amherst, she was fascinated by textiles and the role that clothes and cloth play in our identity. Upon her graduation, her parents gifted her with an arts trip in Ivory Coast. There, Clark learned to weave on traditional looms and to dye and batik cloth.
Her job as assistant director of admissions at a boarding school became less a career than a means to subsidize her future art study. She went to the Art Institute of Chicago for a second undergraduate degree before earning a master of fine arts degree at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
Her work has been exhibited in more than 250 museums on five continents. Among other awards, she was the recipient of the 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art. Richmond and the South have come to engross this native Washingtonian.
“I’ve always been interested in identity and place,” said Clark, a first-generation American who is the daughter of a psychiatrist from Trinidad and a nurse from Jamaica.
“I actually like the complexity. I think that, when we flatten ourselves into ‘Black’ and ‘White’ and this and that, it’s sort of like denying something of the fullness of our identity. So I’m actually interested in geographic locations where identity is both flattened and challenged simultaneously, and Richmond is a really good place for that,” said Clark, who views her job as an artist as “to stand on the edges and reflect on the center.”
She’s tailor-made to interweave the disparate strands of our identity into a cohesive work of art.