Sonya Clark is an American artist of Afro-Caribbean heritage. Clark is a fiber artist known for using a variety of materials including human hair and combs to address race, culture, class, and history. Her beaded headdress assemblages and braided wig series of the late 1990s, which received critical acclaim, evoked African traditions of personal adornment and moved these common forms into the realm of personal and political expression. Although African art and her Caribbean background are important influences, Clark also builds on practices of assemblage and accumulation used by artists such as Betye Saar and David Hammons.
Clark’s father who was a psychiatrist from Trinidad of Yoruba descent while her mother was a nurse from Jamaica. Clark was influenced by the craftspeople in her family, including a grandmother who worked as a tailor, and a grandfather who was a furniture maker.
Clark’s personal connection to the comb began like that of nearly every young girl, squirming on a chair while an adult armed with a comb and good intentions attempted to bring order to the disorder on her head.
Clark holds an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and in 2011 was honored with their first Distinguished Mid-Career Alumni Award. She has a BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago where she studied under the artist Nick Cave (performance artist) and a BA in psychology from Amherst College in 1989, where she also received an honorary doctorate in 2015. She graduated from the Sidwell Friends School in 1985.
Professional academic career
Clark is a professor of Art in the Department of Art and the History of Art at Amherst College. Between 2006 and 2017, she was chair of the Craft/Material Studies Department and was honored as a Distinguished Research Fellow. In 2016, she was awarded a university-wide Distinguished Scholars Award at the highly acclaimed School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. The department is ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the tops in the nation. Prior to her appointment at VCU, she was Baldwin-Bascom Professor of Creative Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she received tenure with distinction and an H.I. Romnes award. Previously, she was Baldwin-Bascom Professor of Creative Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Hair Craft Project
According to Clark, “Hairdressers are my heroes. The poetry and politics of Black hair care specialists are central to my work as an artist and educator. Rooted in a rich legacy, their hands embody an ability to map ahead with a comb and manipulate the fiber we grow into a complex form. These artists have mastered a craft impossible for me to take for granted.”She claims, “hair is power,” and, “as a carrier of DNA, hair holds the essence of identity.”
“I grew up braiding my hair and my sister’s hair, so in one sense, like many black women, I had been preparing to be a textile artist for a very long time.”
Since 2009, Clark has created serial projects surrounding the Confederate Battle Flag. She has performed Unraveling in June 2015 at the now-defunct Mixed Greens gallery in New York City and then at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, in October 2016. Her more recent presentation of the exhibit in Louisville Kentucky “was the first performance under the current presidential administration and since the country has found itself embroiled in a debate over the presence and ramifications of Confederate imagery in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer.” “The act is now a part of a larger movement through which state and local governments are dismantling these objects out of a sense of civic duty.” During the exhibition, members of the audience are encouraged to join Clark one at a time in the unraveling of a confederate flag while she explains her vision and demonstrates how to pull the strands of the flag apart. According to Goodman, “Clark stands side-by-side by participants, shoulder-to-shoulder as they pull each strand of the flag and confront the reality it represents”. In April 2018, Clark returned to her alma mater, Amherst College, to perform “Unravelling” at the Mead Art Museum.
In 2017, Clark created a handwoven linen cloth reproduction of the white dish towel used by a Confederate soldier to surrender at the Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. This piece is known as “Monumental Cloth (sutured)”. It is the artist’s hope that this flag of truce becomes as well known as the Confederate Battle Flag. Both “Unravelling” and “Monumental Cloth (sutured)” were on display at the Mead Art Museum from April 5, 2018 to July 1, 2018.
She has also created the Kente Flag Project. This work is a mixture of elements from African and Western/American culture. She weaves Kente patterns into the design for strength and endurance, advancement and achievement, and prosperity.