A Strand of Hair

Sonya Clark at the Snyderman-Works Gallery

Sonya Clark is preoccupied and it’s a hairy obsession that centers on…hair! Clark’s hirsute artwork is currently on exhibit in an intriguing 24-piece solo show that touches on the symbolism of African American hair in history and culture at the Snyderman-Works Gallery in Philadelphia. The show will run until November 19th. The show will travel to the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio, TX on December 8th, continuing through February 12, 2012. A 36-page catalogue is available at the Snyderman-Works Gallery and the Southwest School of Art.

A first generation African-American with a mix of Scottish and Caribbean descent, Clark’s hair art pieces are made from her own kinky locks as well as from family members. In Mom’s Wisdom a close-up of the artist’s hands shows her lovingly cradling an overflowing mound of her mother’s snow-white hair. To Clark, the photo—a self-portrait, but also a portrait of her mother—depicts the biological representation of her familial roots.

Clark’s numerous works include sculptures, photos and other mixed media that evoke the cultural experiences and history of African American women, but also explores the polarity of both silky and course hair. Clark says that she investigates “simple objects as cultural interfaces.” She is drawn to items that have a connection to her personal history and questions how a comb, a piece of cloth or a strand of hair fits in the narrative of her work.

In her most recently recognized large pieces, Madame CJ Walker, plays a prominent part in Clark’s current portfolio. Madame Walker became the first African American millionaire via the sale of hair straightening products that helped African American women transform their hair to accepted standards of beauty in White America. Constructed from numerous fine-toothed combs—Clark’s ironic portrait of Madame Walker is an astute commentary of society’s view of “good” hair that can be combed with ease as opposed to Africa American women’s “bad” hair where the narrowly spaced teeth of these combs snag and break.

The irony further extends in Afro Abe, a series of seven five-dollar bills that feature an afro coiffed Abraham Lincoln. The president responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation is transformed with a series of increasing voluminous afros that follows the progression of post-civil war African American history and its link to the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

One of the more striking and possibly controversial pieces is Black Hair Flag made after Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia advocated a Confederate History Month. For this new flag, Clark wove long cornrows and Bantu knots of black thread that are arranged like the stars and stripes of the American flag and then incorporated onto a Confederate flag. Each star and stripe represents the African Americans during slavery and their contributions to modern day America.

To some, Clark’s work might come across as defiant and angry, instead she writes, “hair holds the essence of identity. Deep within each strand, the vestiges of our roots resound.”

For more information about Sonya Clark, please visit www.sonyaclark.com. For more information about the exhibit, please visit Snyderman-Works Gallery, http://www.snyderman-works.com/exhibitions/sonya-clark

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