Meaning in the materials: 'Oaths and Epithets' on display at Society for Contemporary Craft
Sonya Clark's solo exhibition entitled “Oaths and Epithets” proves that materials can have meaning.
Take, for example, the piece “Unraveled,” for which the artist unraveled a Confederate battle flag. Clark began unraveling the flag in her studio in the spring of 2015, on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
For many Americans, this symbol represents bigotry and oppression. With Clark's piece, we are left to look at three balls of cotton thread, one each in red, white and blue.
As subtle as it may seem, in essence the mere act of this unraveling represents dismantling the ideals of the Confederacy, as well as addressing present-day racism in the United States.
That piece, like all of the two-dozen-plus works in the exhibit, explores the tension between past and present, while holding a mirror to our own notions of racism, what it is, where it is, and why it still exists. Her work is currently on display at Society for Contemporary Craft in the Strip District.
A multimedia and textile artist of Afro-Caribbean descent based in Richmond, Va., Clark was born and raised in Washington, D.C., to a psychiatrist dad from Trinidad and a nurse mom from Jamaica.
“I gained an appreciation for the value of the handmade, and the stories held in objects from my grandmother, who was a professional tailor,” Clark explains in her artist statement. “Many of my family members taught me the value of a well-told story and so it is that I value the stories held in objects.”
Stories like that of the 19th-century American cotton industry being told in “Untitled (cotton drawings),” a recent work from 2016. Clark created more than 100 illustrations with needle and thread of images of cotton's production on hand-woven, hand-spun khadi cloth.
Another 19th-century story is told in the piece titled “ 3⁄5ths,” which has three braids of black thread down the left side of a man's shirt. It's in an obvious reference to the 1780s ratio established to count slaves as three-fifths of a whole person for the purpose of a state's taxation and representation. This clause in the U.S. Constitution provided foundation for the Electoral College system we still use today to give more weight to previously slave-owning states.
Here Clark references hair, as she does in a few other works on display. But many, such as “Skein” and “Abacus” are made either entirely, or almost entirely of human hair, much of it her own.
Clark's fascination with hair began at an early age, when girls from her neighborhood plaited her locks. She often uses human hair in her textile works because it's a material loaded with meaning.
In Clark's work, hair can serve as a portrait of an individual, a record of one's ancestry, or a portal through which society negotiates race.
The number of hairs in “Skein,” for example (approximately 80,000) is the number of Africans forcibly migrated in one year at the height of the Transatlantic slave trade.
In “Bow for Sounding the Ancestors,” Clark has taken two violin bows and strung each with hair — one with a dreadlocked cord of her own, and the other with straight blonde locks. Two sets of headphones are mounted on the wall, where visitors can hear “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing” and “The Star Spangled Banner” by jazz violinist Regina Carter, who recorded both using these bows.
Clark, a chair of the craft/material studies department at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, Richmond, Va., has been a leader in the field for more than 20 years. The Society for Contemporary Craft honored her recently with the Raphael Prize for innovation in contemporary craft, which includes a $5,000 award.
“That's in line with our belief in supporting artists financially, so they can continue to grow and work,” says the society's executive director Janet McCall. “Some of the works on display are new pieces she created for this exhibit, so that prize helped support the effort to make new work.”
“Oaths and Epithets” is on display for only a few more weeks (through Aug. 19), but a companion exhibit, “Parts, Patterns, and Pieces,” is on display at Contemporary Craft's BNY Mellon Satellite Gallery, located in the T station lobby of BNY Mellon Center in Pittsburgh, through Sept. 17.
An interdisciplinary storytelling exhibit by Women of Visions Inc., it includes works by member artists — all of whom are black women from the Pittsburgh area — who were inspired by Clark's exhibit.
The works featured include sculpture, photography, painting, printmaking and fiber arts pieces, many of which reference or even use hair. From intuitive geometry to strands of resistance, these artists weave personal interpretations of their intuitive connections with black hair.
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic.