Crafts, materials professor creates hair art

VCU craft and materials chairsperson Sonya Clark models the 11 different hair styles featured in her exhibit “The Hair Craft Project.” Photo courtesy of Sonya Clark.

Sarah King
Staff Writer

In the past year, VCU craft and materials chairperson for the School of the Arts had her hair professionally styled 11 times, but it was not because she could not find a style she liked.

Sonya Clark’s different hair-dos are the centerpiece of her exhibition “The Hair Craft Project,” which showcases African American hair styling in conjunction with textile techniques as an art form.

Clark’s project will be the first of her more than 30 professional exhibits to be shown in Richmond. Clark said “The Hair Craft Project” was a yearlong endeavor that included collaboration with 11 local Richmond hairdressers.

“I gave them these canvases stitched with silk thread and asked them to use their hairdressing techniques on these canvases,” Clark said. “The (hairstylists) were absolutely fantastic.”

Judges will assess each of the oval-shaped canvases with photographs of the artist’s hairstyles taken by VCU photo alumni Naoka Wowsugi and Diego Valdez. Shaka Smart’s wife, Maya, will write short biographies for the hairdressers.

Each of the stylists braided and twisted Clark’s hair, although the designs were left completely up to them. After the hairstyles were completed, Wowsugi and Valdez took photographs with the hairstyle in the foreground and corresponding artist in the background of the photo. The photos in combination with the different braided textiles will be on display at the exhibit. Dionne James, one of the featured hairstylists, owns Essence of Braiding and Weaving Hair Studio on 1805 Monument Ave. James said the exhibit helped her realize the artistic side of hair design.

“This experience allowed me to understand how hair braiding and twisting is an art form,” James said. “That and the experience of taking strings to create flat twists in rows allowed me to tap into my creative side.”

Two jurors will award prizes based on the canvases and photographs. A’lelia Bundles, the great-granddaughter of famous hairstylist Madam C.J. Walker, and Lowery Sims, the curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City, will be the judges. There are also people’s choice prizes, and everyone who attends the show is granted a vote.

“It was a lot of work, but I’m really excited to see the judges — that was my ultimate goal,” said Jamilah Williams of Jah Braids, another one of the featured stylists in the exhibit.

Experts in art and craft as well as hairdressing will conduct Gallery Talks at the exhibit on Feb. 27 and March 6 at 5:30 p.m. Speakers for the talks include the two judges, Noliwe Rooks and Bill Gaskins of Cornell University’s African studies and Arts departments, Ruti Talmor of New York University’s Anthropology department and Henry Drewal, the adjunct curator of African Art at the Chazen Museum of Art. Clark said the project aims to bring together a wide audience as well as the hairdressers’ communities.

“The (speakers) are putting this idea of hairdressing as an art form in the context of the contemporary arts practices,” Clark said. “It really reaffirms how close these two processes are — African American hair styling and textile techniques.”

Clark said the exhibit involved the work of more than 30 people, including VCU photo alumni and grad students who helped with the photography, graphic design and studio management.

“The Hair Craft Project” began in early 2013 and Clark completed her last hairstyle this past December. After her first appointment at Silk Hair Studios on Broad Street, she said news of the project traveled via word of mouth to all 11 artists.

“Somebody would say, ‘oh, you should check out so-and-so, I don’t really know her but her work is fabulous,’” Clark said. “Sometimes the stylists didn’t even know each other personally, but they knew her reputation — which is true in the art world also.”

“The Hair Craft Project” is opening with “Same Difference,” another exhibit by Clark that celebrates hair and textiles. The exhibition will be on display from Feb. 14 until March 8 at 1708 Gallery. “Same Difference” will be at the Reynolds Gallery at 1514 W. Main St. from Feb. 21 until April 5.

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