Oaths and Epithets — Works by Sonya Clark, an exhibit at Contemporary Craft, communicates massive ideas and complicated concepts through simple, direct works possessed of quiet strength and subtle majesty. It’s an unsettling and invigorating collection that resonates with the viewer long after the gallery has been left behind, leaving a memory of aesthetically potent images, of their connotation beyond their appearance, and of our response to the heft of the history they carry.
Clark, based in Richmond, Va., is an American artist of Afro-Caribbean heritage. Her work, which has been exhibited nationally, focuses on radically transforming the implications and functionality of everyday objects by recasting them with different and unexpected materials. A five-dollar bill thoroughly coated with sparkling crystalline sugar (“Encrusted”) is no longer valid as currency but multiplies in value as something beautiful.
These metamorphoses are transfixing from a purely visual perspective, but become transcendent in their significance. All reference the kidnapping of African people, their enslavement in the United States, their mistreatment and subjugation under the Confederacy, and their continuing struggle in this country.
Confederate battle flags show up torn apart and sewn back together in emulation of the nation’s present-day banner in “Reconstruction,” then completely unwoven as thread red, white and blue in “Unraveled,” neatly piled like burial mounds. In “Uncurl,” hundreds, maybe thousands, of shiny, plain-black plastic combs are animated into a sinewy, undulating rope, cascading from the gallery ceiling to coil into a puddle of curls upon the floor. It’s alive, muscle-y and taut in repose, and possessed of a formidable strength. “Seven Layer Tangle” gathers another spiny cluster of combs in a Charybdis nest of teeth and sharpness; more are employed in the collaborative work created with Castro Kissiedu, “America Warp, Ghana Weft,” bringing the colors of a nation again to the forefront. Combs appear again bearing a message from Madam C.J. Walker as “In Her Own Words.” The Confederate flag of truce is roughly mended across its middle with suturing thread in “Monumental Cloth (sutured)”; it’s tea-stained and rough and powerful, and to some will reverberate as deeply personal. For this viewer, it was a sucker-punch reminder of her first realization that it wasn’t that black people healed from incisions differently, it was that white doctors weren’t as careful stitching them up.
While all of the explorations utilizing combs, flags and fabric hit hard, it’s the works using a more unexpected material that make this exhibition sublime. Clark often employs human hair as the dominant or only textile in her sculptures, and it’s thrilling. It is employed as a primary material in the construction of the functional, and as an accessory in the creation of the decorative. It’s natural, generated often from the scalp of the artist herself, occasionally off the head of her mother, here and there harvested from a donor left uncredited. And when a viewer gazes at the pieces that it forms, there is the sense of being permitted to look upon something magnificent, sacred and hallowed, being allowed to share a truth as primal as blood.
“Skein” gathers the fiber in a yarn-like ball, mostly wound sound but with one tendril extending. The artist states that the number of hairs used to construct this piece is the same as the number of Africans stolen from their country during a single year of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It’s approximately 80,000. Hair replaces the end of a pencil in “Untitled (a version of history),” prompting thoughts on erasure, and in “Hair Necklace” it creates impenetrable links.
One gorgeous piece is “Pearl of Mother,” a tiny round perfect pale sphere of the artist’s mother’s hair, resting in a hand-shaped cradle built of the artist’s own, like a tiny animal sleeping safely in a nest. There is a poignancy to this work small in size but huge in consequence that is almost unbearable to witness.
In replacing the standard materials used to form the tools of subjugation, Clark subverts the intentions of the abductors by rendering the tools, in their new construction, useless; this takes the power away from those who would use it poorly, and is restorative to behold. But the usage of the body’s own materials nourishes the soul. Chains constructed with sugar are impotent to hold even the captive whose power has been stolen, but a ladder plaited from discarded locks can bear the weight of all who use it to ascend.