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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Sonya Clark is all about hair. At least, that’s the first impression when one encounters her works on canvas — detailed arrangements of braids rendered in thick black thread, stitched down to emulate the elaborate patterns of cornrows and other braided hairstyles most commonly worn by African and African American people (and occasionally appropriated by white people, to much side-eye and consternation). In reality, hair and hair-related accoutrement are a canny medium for Clark to delve into some of the deepest issues surrounding identity, beauty, and racial legacy. “Hair can measure hegemony within our culture,” Clark says via email. “I am convinced that when Afros become coveted, mainstream hairstyles, worn by those who do not naturally grow them — in the same way straight blonde hair is coveted and worn by those who do not naturally grow it — that will be one indicator of racial balance and equality.”
Clark has made a wise choice, as her art is near-universally accessible: one need look no farther than one’s own head in seeking a jumping-off point to relate to her pieces, though there are myriad other associations as well, rooted in her materials and formalist or Postminimalist aesthetics. “I make work from the personal with the intention of connecting to others,” says Clark. This is especially true for an installation of new and collaborative works on display at the University of Michigan’s (U of M) Institute for the Humanities, curated by Amanda Krugliak. Clark’s visit to U of M included a lecture as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series, an occasion to engage students in hands-on exercises designed to heighten communication and empathy, and the installation of a piece that offers continued interaction throughout the run of the show.
This piece, “Pluck & Grow” (2015), scales up one of Clark’s signature hair portraits, which present renditions of actual hairstyles from a flattened perspective, reducing the dimensional rise of the skull to an oval or ellipse outlined by the hair stitched onto canvas. In this case, the oval is drilled directly into the wall, creating a grid of follicles, each of which holds a single strand of hair. But the strands are really papers containing hair stories or drawings by a variety of people, dyed by Clark in shades of black, brown, and blonde. Visitors are encouraged to pluck a strand from the piece and then write down their own hair stories on white paper as replacements. I can’t speak for those whose main problem is deciding between an adorable bob, set of bangs, or pixie cut, but as a person who has struggled throughout my life with wildly curly hair that exists outside the beauty norm or any laws of predictable physics, I ran out of room on my paper, chronicling the challenges of self-acceptance I’ve faced on this subject. The black strand that I pulled in return untwisted to reveal a barely discernible scratch portrait of a face and collar, with the signature “Fatima Mohamed, QATAR.”
“The piece will change from blacks, browns, and blondes to white as people participate,” Clark says. “The shift in color is not about race but about the piece ‘graying’ with time. Just as hair on a head, the piece ages as more people participate.”
Two of the most geometrically captivating works employ black barber shop combs — a material that Clark has worked with for the last 10 years. “Woven Comb Carpet” (2013), a floor piece, weaves together long strings of combs, creating a monochrome carpet of rigid lines that warp and weft in thick waves. On an adjacent wall, “Whole Hole” (2015) sees combs arranged in a flat grid, with the intersection of teeth in the outside comb squares creating a dense shading effect that fades to white at the center, as the teeth are progressively and meticulously punched out. The object repetition here is alluring and slightly hypnotic, as is the magic-eye effect of a white sphere that emerges only at a certain remove. But even these formal relationships between positive and negative space have a visceral underpinning — the painful snap, as anyone who’s been on the receiving end of a broken comb knows, a struggle between the body’s nature and the constructs that society uses to limit or negotiate it.
Bridging the combs and the wall of stories is “Triangle Trade” (2011), the oldest work in the show, and one which employs braided string in a tight, spiraling equilateral triangle. The shape plays on the formalism of geometric art, while also referring to a reprehensible aspect of world history: the Transatlantic slave trade. This wound and its ripples through the generations are at the emotional heart of the issues Clark explores with her starkly formal composition (in this piece and all of her work), adding dignity and gravitas to a history understandably tied to hyperbolic emotion.
Hair drama may seem like a banal struggle in light of the many challenges faced by women worldwide. But the power a woman wields over her personal appearance, as well as her ability to conform to arbitrary standards that characterize her as attractive, desirable, put-together, or in control, still carry ludicrous importance and define many aspects of her financial and emotional well-being. Clark presents her chosen materials in simple and highly accessible terms, but the longer you sit with the work and the longer you are willing to listen, the more and more you will find to untangle.
Sonya Clark continues at the Institute for Humanities (University of Michigan, 202 S. Thayer Street, Ann Arbor) through December 11.
Correction: This piece originally misattributed the hair stories and drawings in “Pluck & Grow” to Clark herself, rather than to other participants in the project. It has been fixed.