Sonya Clark Q&A

Sonya Clark. Photo courtesy of VCUarts
Photo courtesy of VCUarts
Sonya Clark. Photo courtesy of VCUarts
Photo courtesy of VCUarts

Chair of the Craft and Material Studies Department at VCU Sonya Clark is featured at the VMFA for her piece, Black Hair Flag. Clark is known for using a variety of materials including human hair and combs to address race, culture, class and history.

Tell me about your piece

It was acquired by the museum a couple years ago. I made it in 2010 in response to the former governor of Virginia making proclamations about April being Confederate History Month. At that time, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was still flying a confederate flag on its grounds, which it no longer does of course. And around the same time, the museum was just about to open its big expansion. This was all a few years ago, and they had asked artists to make pieces in response to something that was in the museum’s collection. So I responded to something that was in the museum collection, but I really responded to the fact that the museum’s grounds, like all of Richmond, are confederate historical sites. I painted a battle flag of the Confederacy and fixed it with cotton thread and then braided the thread so that they were cornrows that make up this trace of the American flag and then bantu knots to make the stars of the american flag. So my thought was to insert the African American presence into the history of the Confederacy and the people owning people.

Hair styling is a big part of your work, why is that?

I’m a chair of the Crafts Department and my field is textiles. I think of textiles as being completely related to hairstyling. I believe hairstyling to be the very first textile art form because it was the first manipulation of a thread or a fiber for functional or aesthetic purposes and that those should come together in my work. Also, hair becomes one of those places where we can talk about race and identity and similarities and differences. Hairstyling salons become one of the places where race is negotiated. Also, hair is one of those things that holds our DNA so it’s a thing that can separate us racially, but on the other hand it connects us because our DNA, regardless of what race you are, might be closer genetically to someone who doesn’t look like you at all. So even if your hair doesn’t look like someone else’s at all, you might be closer to them genetically than someone who’s hair looks more like your own. I grow it thick and curly and someone else might not. So for those reasons and many more, I’ve been using hair as a medium and a subject in many of my works.

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What advice would you give VCU students who want to get their work into a museum like the VMFA?

Many of our students do show their work at galleries. That’s one of the things we pride ourselves in at the School of the Arts. One of the things that we teach visual arts students is professional practices. This is a phrase I’m stealing from somebody else but I love to say it: Find your authentic expression, find your true voice and to stick with it. Every artist has something unique that they have to offer but the most important thing is that they have to figure out how to connect their unique voices to a wider populace.

Have any of your students had their work featured in galleries?

Not only do many of our students at the undergraduate and certainly graduate levels get their work into galleries, but I taught an honors class last year around this time, and I worked with those students in that honors class on a collaborative project. Each one of us made a part of this collaborative project and that piece is actually in the VMFA. Graduate students who took a class with me last spring have their work in the VMFA on semi-permanent loan in the African gallery.

Would you say that collaboration and networking are a big part of the art world?

I think that one of the things that the students need to think about, first, is how to be true to your own voice but also how to stay connected to other people as well. It might be someone that you’re in a class with right now. It might be that you’re in a ceramics class with and the person sitting next to you might end up owning a gallery one day. So if you’re a good critique of both that person’s work and listen to what they have to say when they’re critiquing your work and you’re a good citizen in the classroom, then that person’s going to remember your work and remember how you are. And when they own a gallery they’re going to reach out to you because they remember how you were as an artist. And that’s what’s worked for me, it’s that I’ve stayed connected to people in the art community.

Adriel Velazquez, Contributing Writer

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