Sonya Clark

Sonya Clark (lives and works in Amherst, MA) draws from the legacy of crafted objects as a means to honor her lineage and expand notions of both American-ness and art. She uses materials as wide ranging as textiles, hair, beads, combs, and sound to address issues of nationhood, identity, and racial constructs. Clark’s pieces, Abacus 1863, Counting Change, Edifice and Mortar, and Three-Fifths serve as reminders that both the containment and exploitation of Black bodies have been built into the foundations of modern society, and particularly the United States.

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Edifice and Mortar

brick wall with words of the Declaration of Independence stamped into them. A piece of blue glass leans against the wall. brick wall with words of the Declaration of Independence stamped into them.
Edifice and Mortar, 2018
Hand-stamped bricks, human hair, and glass
Collection of the artist

On one side of Edifice and Mortar, an eight-foot wall made of bricks, the bricks are each stamped with a custom maker’s mark. This mark features the outline of a head with an Afro and bearing the word schiavo, Italian for “slave." Darkened within schiavo are the letters ciao, which is the Italian greeting derived from the phrase s-ciào vostro, “I am your slave.” On the other side of the wall is selected text from the U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776). The mortar for the wall is made of African American hair, binding together the promises of equality written across the bricks while drawing attention to the history of transatlantic slavery, migration, and colonialism on which the nation is built. A blue mirror leaning against the wall conjures the image of a U.S. flag while also reflecting the viewer, inviting each individual to consider their position within this paradox.

Three-fifths

White button-up shirt with three braids woven into the back on the left
Three-fifths, 2010
Cloth and thread
Collection of the artist

The Three-Fifths Clause is the provision (Article I, Section 2) of the US Constitution (1787) stating that only three-fifths of the enslaved population of a state would be counted for the purpose of determining Congressional representation and taxation. This clause remained in place until the passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865, which abolished slavery except “as a punishment for crime.” In Clark’s Three-fifths, three woven braids on a white button-up shirt evoke nineteenth-century prison uniforms and critique the present economic and political ramifications of this history. For instance, current voting laws in most states hold that individuals convicted of a felony are not allowed to vote during their sentence or while on parole, and in some cases, permanently. Regardless of their voting status, these individuals are still counted as residents for the purpose of determining representational districts.

Abacus & Counting Change

Wooden abacus with black beads
Abacus, 2010
Wood, human hair, and metal
Collection of the artist

Counting Change, 2010
Digital video
Collection of the artist

Abacus and Counting Change refer to the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and its declaration that all persons held as slaves . . . shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”? Abacus is a sculptural work, with beads made of Clark’s hair, marking the many years, and injustices, since the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Counting Change, a stop motion video, registers the passing of time, with a sequence of still images taken of Abacus as the beads shift and the years mount. Musician Nina Simon’s Old Jim Crow plays as the audio for Counting Change, evoking the troubled history in the U.S. of Black people being treated as less than human. The works question whether real change has actually taken place or not in the nation. As Clark states:

“When the nation ended the Civil War one of the things it had to contend with was: Are Black people going to be treated as people, as actual citizens? We are still answering that question.”

Keywords

Biography

Portrait of Sonya Clark

Born in Washington DC to a psychiatrist from Trinidad and a nurse from Jamaica, Sonya Clark’s work draws from the legacy of crafted objects and the embodiment of skill. As an African American artist, craft is a means to honor her lineage and expand notions of both American-ness and art. She uses materials as wide ranging as textiles, hair, beads, combs, and sound to address issues of nationhood, identity, and racial constructs. Clark is a full professor in the Department of Art and the History of Art at Amherst College in Western Massachusetts. From 2006 until 2017, Clark was a full professor and Chair of the Craft and Material Studies Department at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Richmond, Virginia. She held the title Distinguished Research Professor in the School of the Arts a VCU and was a Commonwealth Professor. Formerly she was Baldwin-Bascom Professor of Creative Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and she was awarded their first Mid-Career Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011. She also holds a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2015 she was awarded an honorary doctorate from her alma mater Amherst College where she received a BA in psychology. She has exhibited her work in over 350 museums and galleries in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. She is the recipient of several awards including an Anonymous Was a Woman Award, an Art Prize Grand Jurors co-prize, a Pollock-Krasner Grant, a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Fellowship in Italy, a BAU Camargo Fellowship in France, a Red Gate Residency in China, a Civitella Ranieri Residency in Italy, an 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art, a United States Artist Fellowship, and an Art Matters Grant. Her work is in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Musees d'Angers in France among several other institutions. Several publications have reviewed her work including The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Forbes Magazine, Sculpture Magazine, Huffington Post, Time Magazine, Artnet News, Hyperallergic, and several others.

Suggested Reading

  1. Agard, John. Half-Caste and Other Poems. UK ed. Edition. London: Hodder Children’s Books, 2005.
  2. Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. First edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.