Photo by Sarah Walor
The selectors said: An internationally recognized artist in her field, Sonya has been engaged in an ongoing exploration of African-American hair and identity. This past spring, she organized “The Hair Craft Project” with 1708 Gallery, through which she involved 11 local hairstylists. The resulting project was inspiring, lovely and a truly meaningful engagement of the community.
"She’s a little strange,” a Wash-ington, D.C., Montessori schoolteacher told Sonya Clark’s parents. “She may be an artist.”
From reveling in the motion and sound of drawing a line on a freshly painted wall to the present, Clark has created work for about 35 solo shows and participated in 300 exhibitions worldwide. “I’ve had art in shows on every continent except Antarctica,” she says. “If I’m not showing work, I don’t think I can call myself an artist. I want my artwork to be in the world.”
Her Jamaican mother, Lilleth, trained as a nurse, and her psychiatrist father, the late Ranville Clark, was a native of Trinidad. Her maternal grandmother, Vera McHardy, was a tailor and one of the first women to start the YWCA in Jamaica. She traveled the world visiting her grandchildren, who lived in Ghana, England and D.C., and who called her “Chummy,” Clark says, “because she was such a chum” — that is, a pal. Chummy taught the young Clark how to sew, and she demonstrated that objects contain stories that can be expressed.
Clark’s family lived in a midcentury rancher across the street from the mansion of the ambassador of Benin and his family of 14. When Clark would visit the ambassador’s daughters, “I’d go home with these elaborate, architectural hairstyles.” It was the 1970s, when prominent African-Americans such as actress Cicley Tyson were seen wearing traditional African hairstyles, and Clark felt free to be more creative with her hair than she might have a generation earlier.
Despite her artistic tendencies, in high school she focused on math, as guided by her parents, and she studied psychology at Amherst College. There, she met musician Darryl Harper, her future husband. She became interested in anthropology and African studies, later following that interest to the Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned her second bachelor’s degree.
“My folks weren’t happy with me,” she says, laughing. In the fiber arts department, instructors inspired her by using hair as a material in their work. Clark credits Philadelphia photographer and professor Bill Gaskins for articulating that hairdressing was one of the first textile arts.
She earned a master’s degree at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and taught for a decade at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 2006, she came to Virginia Commonwealth University, where she now chairs the Department of Craft/Material Studies. Fellowships have enabled her to work and study in Italy and China, and in September, she was recognized through the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina, with the Society 1858’s Prize for Contemporary Southern Art, which conveys $10,000.
Richmond’s complexities have also proved to be compelling and inspiring. In 2010, in conjunction with the opening of the new wing of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, artists were invited to respond to works in the VMFA’s collection. Clark selected Eastman Johnson’s 1862 painting A Ride for Liberty — the Fugitive Slaves. That spring, Gov. Bob McDonnell declared April as Virginia’s Confederate History Month. At the VMFA, protesters were demanding that the Confederate Memorial Chapel adjacent to the museum be allowed to fly the Confederate battle flag.
Black Hair Flag, using thread to resemble hair on a hybrid of the U.S. flag and the Confederate battle flag, was Clark’s response. Cornrows make up the stripes, and bantu knots become the stars. “This inserts the black body into the conversation,” Clark says, “and the economic implications, the complexity of the history that is flattened out by the celebratory fervor of one side.” The piece was part of the recent “Identity Shifts” show at the VMFA, a companion to the “Posing Beauty” exhibition, and it is likely to join the museum’s collection.
Clark’s “Hair Craft Project” exhibition this past spring at the 1708 Gallery involved the talents of 11 hairstylists whose braiding of her hair was photographed, and they created additional works on canvas using simulated hair. “Those ladies — that ball went way out of the park and inspired other projects I want to take on,” she says. “I learned a lot from those women, about hair politics, from sitting in those salons.”