Sonya Clark, Nap, 2012; Glass beads and board, 16 x 20 x 5 in.; On loan from the artist; Sonya Clark; Photo by Taylor Dabney
Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend will be on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington D.C. today, March 3 through May 31, 2021. Confronting themes of race, visibility and Blackness, it is the first museum survey of the acclaimed textile and social practice artist’s 25-year career, exploring the social and cultural impacts of the African diaspora.
The exhibition will feature nearly 100 works, including Clark’s sculptures made from pocket combs, human hair and thread as well as works from flags, currency, beads, sugar, cotton plants, pencils, books and more.
The artist changes these everyday objects with a vast range of techniques: she weaves, stitches, folds, braids, dyes, pulls, twists, presses, snips or ties within each work. By stitching black thread cornrows and Bantu knots onto fabrics, rolling human hair into necklaces and stringing a violin bow with a dreadlock, Clark manifests ancestral bonds and reasserts the Black presence in histories from which it has been pointedly omitted.
Throughout her 25-year career, Clark has become renowned for her application of fiber art techniques to human hair, combs, currency, hair salon chairs and other everyday materials to explore the social and cultural impacts of the African Diaspora.
The exhibition features nearly 100 works that reflect the breadth and depth of the artist’s practice. Illuminating the central themes of Clark’s art—including heritage, labor, language and visibility—the show aims to reveal Clark’s radical ability to combine an intensity of handwork and subject matter with an economy of form.
“This timely exhibition affirms Clark’s prowess as both maker and visionary,” said NMWA Deputy Director for Art, Programs and Public Engagement/Chief Curator Kathryn Wat. “She uses concept, process and participation rather than didactic imagery to reflect questions and truths back to us.”
Clark describes “mining” common objects, particularly those bound to identity and power, because “they have the mysterious ability to reflect or absorb us.” The artist transmutes these objects through the application of a vast range of fiber-based processes: weaving, folding, braiding, trimming, pulling, rubbing, twisting, pressing, snipping, dyeing, tying or stacking her diverse source materials.
By stitching black thread cornrows and Bantu knots onto flags, rolling human hair into necklaces, or stringing a violin bow with a dreadlock, she reasserts the Black presence in histories from which it has been pointedly omitted.
For example, Clark’s Afro Abe II (2010)—a five-dollar bill embellished with black threads that form an Afro for President Abraham Lincoln—is witty, poignant and provocative. The stitched intervention induces a sharp, penetrating moment of recognition and connection and infuses the currency with new, layered meaning.
Clark’s use of currency-as-canvas evokes personal, cultural and historical associations with money, including freedom, self-determination and property ownership. As Clark observes, “It’s crowning the emancipator with the hair most associated with Black liberation and black power,” simultaneously embodying the historical absence of Black political agency as well as the promise of it. That liminality—the creation of objects that simultaneously denote humankind’s capacity to suppress as well as persevere—is the formidable essence of Clark’s practice.
About Sonya Clark
Born in 1967 in Washington, D.C., Sonya Clark is professor of art and the history of art at Amherst College, and formerly a Distinguished Research Fellow in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University. She earned an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She also holds a BA from Amherst College, from which she received an honorary doctorate in 2015. She is the recipient of the Rappaport Prize, James Renwick Alliance Distinguished Educator Award, United States Artists Fellowship, Anonymous Was a Woman Award, ArtPrize Juried Grand Prize, Pollock Krasner Foundation award and The 1858 Prize, among others. Clark is one of 16 international artists selected to participate in the inaugural Black Rock Senegal residency program (2020) in Dakar, a project launched by artist Kehinde Wiley. Clark’s art has been presented in more than 350 museums and galleries around the world and reviewed in publications including Artforum, The Art Newspaper, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.
Sonya Clark (b.1967); Photo by Nicholas Calcott
2010; Five-dollar bill and thread, 4 x 6 in.; NAtional Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth)