"Cotton to Hair" by Sonya Clark, part of Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend
Sonya Clark, "Cotton to Hair," 2009; Bronze, human hair, and cotton, 14 ½ x 12 ½ x 5 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Sonya Clark; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

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Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend

Digital exhibition at nmwa.org to June 27

On one level, some of Sonya Clark’s art is unassuming—a ball of hair might not be seen as extremely political. But once placed in an exhibition with an unraveling Confederate battle flag, reconsidering the narrative of a ball of hair is necessary. Hair is natural to most people; most of us have it. It comes in various colors and textures, but what should be a basic aspect of identity is actually very charged. Though stories about natural hair are featured in television and print news today, the politicization of hair predates even these media inventions. When Africans were captured into slavery, their identities were stripped from them, including the sense of pride and notions of beauty they had for their hair.

Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend, a 25-year retrospective of the artist’s career at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, is currently available in an online exhibition that highlights 33 of the 100 works on view at the physical location. While seeing all these artworks in the physical space would allow for a greater appreciation of the artistry in the works, the online exhibition highlights their contextual dynamics. The text alongside the artwork explains their significance not only to the larger body of work but to the greater cultural context, allowing viewers to understand the gravity of Clark’s work and its relation to consciousness-raising and art activism.

Since the 1960s Black Power Movement, the consciousness-raising of the Black Panthers awakened many to the idea that Black is beautiful, and that the Afro and Black people’s natural hair texture is too. In recent times, there has been a shift in our thinking about hair, divesting us from generations of favorable bias toward untextured hair. And as Black women, especially, embrace the texture of their hair, they show their social consciousness is changing as well. Though popular hairstyles for Black people have gone through many changes over time from straightening with hot combs, to Afros, to jheri curls, to perms, mostly due to the dominant culture dictating job qualifications based on one’s ability to fit into White culture through hair choices, today, Black people are demanding they be accepted as who they are—with their natural hair. 

Clark’s art argues that Black hair is beautiful. She uses hair as a textile to create art in the way other artists might use cotton or silk, taking a lead from Black hair stylists, whom she calls textile artists for the intricate styles they create. She alerts us to the politicization of Black hair by featuring it in a way that connects it to experiences, particularly the transatlantic slave trade, that have inhibited African diasporic peoples’ progression. Clark uses hair to tell the story of Black life from slavery to modern times, as she forges a relationship between Africa and African diasporic people by manipulating hair and hair-like fibers to represent their shared experiences despite inhabiting varied countries. Throughout the diaspora, there is the common misbelief that African features are abnormal. Clark strives to normalize and argues for the acceptance of textured hair as beautiful into our belief systems.

“Mom’s Hair or Cotton Candy” is a photograph of a handful of Clark’s mother’s white hair. Based on Yoruba cultural tradition, white is associated with wisdom, which implies that those whose hair naturally changes to white over time are wise. Clark’s family are descendents of Africa, but they were brought to the Caribbean through the transatlantic slave trade to harvest sugarcane. Her mother’s hair is both a product of wisdom and work; it is the product of Africa and the sugar plantation. The title of another work, “Skein,” is deceptive, as it appears to be a ball made of locs. But what Clark has done here is pieced together 80,000 individual hairs to represent the number of Africans transported from Africa in a single year during the height of the transatlantic slave trade. The meticulousness of this artwork is inspiring, and its apparent simplicity is intriguing. In “Triangle Trade,” Clark uses cotton fiber to cornrow, the name of the braiding style for Americans because it is reminiscent of cornfields, to describe the network between Europe, Africa, and the Americas that made up the transatlantic slave trade. By braiding the triangle, she makes linkages to African people and their relationships to three corners of the world.

Clark’s work enforces the connections between African diasporic people through their hair and shared circumstance. Hair, as a symbol of Blackness in these artworks, bonds the people to her work and speaks of their potency and permanence. She manipulates fibers to contextualize the heinous experiences of Black people based on something as natural but disquieting as hair. Tatter, Bristle, and Mend reestablishes Black hair as beautiful after centuries of Black people being told their natural hair is inappropriate.