- Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend
The COVID-19 shutdown of 2020, along with the Black Lives Matter movement, has launched a turbulent time for museums and cultural heritage institutions wrestling with economic devastation, sociopolitical relevancy, and a call to dismantle the historical connections between museums and inequality. Many museum visitors have wondered what they would be returning to as museums reopen across the United States and whether public calls for reform would be evident through new exhibits and programs. The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, DC, is distinctive in its claim to being the “only major museum solely dedicated to championing women in the arts.” Since 1981, NMWA has grown from its original mission in promoting women artists to the public to becoming a center for public engagement.
On March 3, 2021, the National Museum of Women in the Arts reopened after closing for over 2 months with the first survey exhibition of textile and social practice artist Sonya Clark. Clark, who was born in Washington, DC, and is of Yoruba heritage, shares her artist’s statement in the exhibition catalog: “I use the language of textiles, the politics of hair, and the powerful resonance held in words and materials. I do these things to celebrate culture, interrogate historical imbalances, and highlight racial and social injustices.”1 In this exhibition, the concept of social justice is linked with the hyper-visibility and centering of the aesthetic forms and practices that tie Black Americans to their ancestral roots.
Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend, curated by Kathryn Wat and Hannah Shamb-room, is an overview of Clark’s 25-year career. This show successfully demonstrates the utility of museums when they choose to facilitate public discourse on the rituals and customs that make up the cultural history of the United States. This show also confirms the transformative power of highlighting the lives of Black women in art museums. Tatter, Bristle, and Mend commemorates the creatives within Black hair care culture and posits these individuals as essential stewards of Black heritage and familial bonds as they “redress history.” To Clark, “hair is the fiber that we grow, so I like to say that the first textile art form is hairdressing” (p. 44).
The exhibit, which takes over the entire second floor of the museum, consists of white, charcoal, and vibrant yellow walls. Viewers encounter 100 works of art that include portraits, installations, and sculptures “made from black pocket combs, human hair, and thread as well as works created from flags, currency, beads, cotton plants, pencils, books, a typewriter, and a hair salon chair.” The exhibit also explores Clark’s recent adoption of media like sugar and neon.
Rather than taking viewers on a time line of the artist’s journey, the curators of the show chose to design the second floor into concepts that communicate how the African diaspora’s collective history and emotional legacy are disseminated through Black craftsmanship. The [End Page 524] display of household and personal items brings a sense of familiarity to visitors reeling from the stasis of being homebound. Still, Clark’s re-envision reminds us how memories, which are fragments of one’s legacy, are communicated and preserved through objects.
Over 3,000 plastic black combs were either assembled, broken down, or re-designed to create Clark’s large hanging sculpture Madame C. J Walker, from 2008. The sculpture was based on a well-known 1912 photograph of the self-made millionaire and activist from Black DC, artist Addison N. Scurlock. Madame Walker acquired her wealth through developing and selling Black hair care and cosmetic products. Looking closely, viewers can see the artist’s hand in the missing teeth of the combs, at times removed and layered to create a majestic portrait while signifying Walker’s Black beauty empire as an endowment for the continuation of Black hair practices to be shared from...