Hair/Goods: An Homage to Madam C.J. Walker
Internationally acclaimed fiber and social practice artist Sonya Clark (born 1967) is a native of Washington D.C., and the daughter of a Jamaican mother and a Trinidadian father of Yoruba decent.
Clark’s socially engaged practices address the complexity of American culture and history, including its evolution through colonization, slavery, inequity, and immigration. Clark’s wide-ranging body of work has crossed styles and media, utilizing humble materials from daily life such as combs, thread, wigs, coins, seed beads, found objects, flags, and human hair, to craft exquisite objects that transpose craft into a potent stage for social commentary, activism, truth telling, and change. These objects simultaneously honor craftspeople and notable African American figures such as former President Barack Obama, or the entrepreneur Madam CJ Walker.
Sony Clark links inanimate objects to the human condition to address race and visibility, heritage, and to expose and redress history. “Objects have personal and cultural meaning because they absorb our stories and reflect our humanity back to us. My stories, your stories, our stories are held in the object,” says Clark.
The artist’s family history informed her appreciation of diaspora and Afro-Caribbean traditions. Her maternal grandmother, a tailor from whom she learned to sew, and maternal grandfather, a skilled woodworker and furniture maker, further inspired the artist. Her work points out cultural symbols, often rooted in deep meaning and political histories. Her objects divulge Clark’s respect for other cultures, and she has studied with craftspeople from Australia, Ghana, India, Brazil, China, and Indonesia to enhance her comprehension of the cultural association’s objects transport, as well as to hone her technical acumen with tools, techniques, and scholarship with historical accuracy.
Clark has received numerous awards, including the James Renwick Alliance Distinguished Educator Award (2018), the Anonymous Was A Woman Award (2016), ArtPrize Juried Grand Prize (co-winner, 2014), the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (2010 and 2011), and a Pollock-Krasner Fellowship. Her work has been exhibited in more than 350 museums and galleries throughout the world.
Major projects include a two-year residency with The Fabric Workshop and Museum in PA; the exhibition Sonya Clark: Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know; Matrix at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, CT; Sonya Clark: Self-Evident at the African American Museum in Philadelphia; The Hair Craft Project, which honors the creative integrity of everyday, under-recognized hair crafters; the Kente Flag Project, which explored ideas of cultural symbols and hybridized identity; and Unraveling, which invites the general public to work side by side with Clark to systematically unravel the Confederate flag one thread at a time. In 2021, Clark opens her major one-woman exhibition, Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, Mend at The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC.
Clark was a Distinguished Research Fellow in the School of Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University where she served as chair for the Craft/Material Studies Department from 2006 until 2017. She is currently a Professor of Art at Amherst College in Massachusetts, from where she received an Honorary Doctorate in 2015.
Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove; December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919 ) was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and social activist chronicled as America’s first self-made female African American millionaire. Her amassed wealth accrued through her own tenacity, business acumen, and intellect. Walker built her fortune by developing and marketing a line of hair care and cosmetic products for black women through the business she founded, Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.
Walker produced generational wealth that had a major impact on her descendants, if not the African American community at large. The exhibition’s Curator, Amy Eva Raehse, says: “Walker is a historically relevant subject worthy of study across myriad disciplines including American History, Business, Economics, Feminist Movements, and even the principles of Socially Responsible Investing…yet Walker is often omitted from much of the white-centric history still taught in today’s educational curriculum. It is exasperating that this remarkable woman is not a worldwide household name, yet Clark celebrates her legacy in such a potent and beautiful way that aims to teach about Walker’s story and relevance.”