Exhibition Visit: Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, access to museums has been extremely limited. As museums reopen, we look forward to sharing our favorite exhibitions from around the Washington DC area and beyond.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts recently opened their new exhibition, “Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend.” This is the first full survey exhibit of Clark’s career and showcases the artist’s range of mixed media sculptures which address topics of Blackness, identity, and American history.

Prior to visiting the exhibition, I was unfamiliar with Clark’s work other than viewing one of her works which was in the NMWA’s permanent collection. Excited to finally wander through a museum exhibition again after almost a year and curious about the exhibit happening just upstairs from where I worked in the NMWA’s gift shop, I stopped by the show after one of my shifts.

Hair Necklaces, 2002. This work considers the things we inherit, such as jewelry, but also DNA and physical attributes such as our hair

Entering the exhibit, I was welcomed by a room of black sculptures hanging from the walls and displayed in vitrines. It was only once I moved closer to the sculptures that I realized just what they were made from; many of the works in the show are made from human hair, tightly wound or balled up to form new shapes. A large portion of Clark’s work plays upon the theme of hair, particularly hair and hair salons as part of an identity of Blackness. She also reflects on hair as a symbol of DNA and identity, such as the way DNA is passed on to the next generation and connects us to our ancestors and history.

Madam CJ Walker, 2008
Portraits of Hairdressers from “Hair Craft Project”
Madame CJ Walker, Detail

In addition to delicate sculptures made from human hair, Clark also utilizes the simple black plastic comb as a material in her sculptures. Winding thread around them, she uses them to create portraits of hairdressers which accompany a large portrait of Madame C.J. Walker, the Black entrepreneur and first female self-made millionaire who made her fortune in the haircare industry.

Moving into another part of the exhibition, Clark’s work turns towards history and the slave trade. The works in this section utilize sugar and cotton as a key material, referencing the sugar cane and cotton fields where slaves worked. For many African Americans like herself, the identity as an American is fraught with a history of trauma and a loss of identity with their African roots.

Sonya Clark, “Unraveling,” 2015

I ended my viewing of the exhibition with Clark’s piece, “Unraveling (2015),” a Confederate flag in the midst of being unraveled. In performances, she invites people to join her as they stand before the flag and unravel it, thread by thread. This slow painstaking work reflects the “slow and deliberate work of unraveling racial dynamics in the United States.”

Throughout my visit, profoundly moved by Clark’s works and the deep reflections of race, identity, and history throughout, I found myself also considering one of the primary elements and influences in Clark’s works filled with weaving, braiding, and unraveling: textiles.

For centuries, textile arts have been closely associated with women. Embroidery, sewing, and other textile arts were not considered “fine arts,” and were a craft women could do from the comfort of their homes. Textiles, specifically quilting, has also been closely connected to African American women artists and history. Twentieth and twenty-first century artists such as Faith Ringold and Bisa Butler use quilts as a medium to share Black history and stories or depict Black figures. The once “domestic craft” has been transformed into a space of community and intersectional thought. Clark’s work, from a project working with hairdressers and hair to the dedicated work of unraveling a woven piece of fabric, directly uses traditionally female spaces and materials to reflect on larger ideas of Blackness, national history and trauma, and identity.

Public Art Work of Kamala Harris located at the Wharf, Washington DC

On my walk home from the museum, I walked along the Wharf. A location typically busy with tourists and restaurant-goers, it was relatively quiet at 4:00 on a Tuesday during a pandemic — Except for a small group of people gathered around and taking photos with a new installation, a large and colorful image of Vice President Kamala Harris along with the quote, “I’m Speaking.” As I got closer to the image to look at it myself, I noticed what the banner was made from: yarn. It was a giant knitted banner, a traditionally feminine textile art made into a public work of art to bring together the community and celebrate a historic first: a Black and Asian American woman Vice President.

Exhibition is open Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm, Sunday, 12pm-5pm. Tickets for the exhibition are available here.


Sonya Clark Website

National Museum of Women in the Arts Website

Exhibition Catalogue

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