Dear Sonya Clark,
Today I had an extraordinary experience visiting your exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts entitled Tatter, Bristle, and Mend. I am so glad you posted about your recent visit to finally see your own art show, which reminded me that I had been meaning to work up the courage to re-enter the world, go downtown, and see it.
By your work, I was deeply moved.
Part of your post was praising the security staff for their knowledgeable engagement with the exhibit and guests who came to see it. Perhaps your ears were ringing this afternoon because the first thing I heard when I entered the exhibit was a member of the security team telling guests about your visit and how much it meant to them that you acknowledged their role, spoke with them, and even presented them with gifts. Your attention, authenticity and care clearly meant a lot. I heard that same message separately from another security member AND the librarian. You are held in high regard there.
I could go on and on about the many pieces that showcase the depth of your intellectual inquiry, commitment to historical and cultural exploration, and highly detailed attention to craft, materials, and processes. But I am not an art historian or curator or artist and my words would not do your work justice. So I will share my experience of just one piece: Long Hair (2005). A single loc, photographed, printed, and rolled on a 30 foot scroll.
The loc you chose for this piece looks just like one of mine. It is the same width and tightness, the same texture that comes from a curl pattern that is wiry yet soft, and dynamically irregular. While I have seen and appreciated Black hair as art before, in all variations of curl and nap and glory, I have never seen my hair as art before. My literal hair. My actual locs. The way the strands on my head have twisted and tangled for the last 18 years. I stared at it in recognition.
I love my hair. I really do. I have worn it naturally since 1999 and in locs since 2003. I have a wonderful stylist who keeps it healthy and uniquely-styled (shout out to Audrey Afari at the Loc Lounge in Silver Spring). And yet, while I love it, I am constantly aware of (and constantly in rejection of) the ways that other people don’t love it. The associations and assumptions they make. The questions they have. People do not generally cross my boundaries with random touches or unkind words, but nevertheless the threat always feels close.
Looking at your piece, I fell in love with my hair. Any uncertainty about its sublimity fell away. I was reminded of some work I did writing lesson plans for the Freer Sackler about an ancient Chinese scroll. Like many scrolls, the artist scholar combined The Three Perfections to produce a stunning symphony of text and color and stroke. In your scroll, I saw my hair as perfection. I saw my hair as painting, as calligraphy, as poem.
Afterwards, I went to lunch by myself to further process the exhibit and all that it made me remember and consider and wonder. As I pulled out my wallet to pay the check, I noticed a single piece of my hair on the leather strap. Before the exhibit, I would have carelessly brushed it off, but post-exhibit I simply stared. It reminded me of the project you did to create a font out of your curl pattern, which you called Twist.
With this new perspective, I looked at that random, fallen hair and saw something really beautiful. So beautiful, I began to cry as I placed it tenderly back in my purse. The waiter came over concerned, but I told him I was fine. Just moved by powerful art.
Thank you for creating your incredible body of empowering and enlightening work. Thank you for sharing it with me and the rest of the world. It really does take artists to help us see clearly that which has been in front of us all along.
To explore Sonya Clark’s Work: