Phantom Thread

By Sacha Zimmerman

On the Lives That Speak podcast, Head of School Bryan Garman spoke to artist Sonya Clark ’85 about art with purpose, objects in conversation, and Clark’s favored medium: textiles. Clark has added an afro to Lincoln’s pate on the $5 bill, sewn long rows of dreadlocks to a chair, and invited spectators to join her in painstakingly unraveling the Confederate battle flag until it’s just thread. The deconstruction of “monumental” cloth specifically—whether it’s flags, Black hair, currency, or literature—demonstrates the possibility and the power of undoing to, paradoxically, create something more whole. Her show, "Sonya Clark: Tatter, Bristle, and Mend," was on exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts from March 3 through June 27 this year.

BRYAN GARMAN: You’ve had a homecoming with this incredible show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It’s a mid-career retrospective with 100 objects.

SONYA CLARK: I’m very excited. Kathryn Wat, who is the chief curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, really understands objects and understands what my work is trying to do. She put things in conversation that perhaps had not been in dialogue with one another. So, a piece from 1994 might be in conversation with a piece from 2004 or a piece from 2014. To see that arc across time and have someone handle the work with such diligence, care, and intellect— that’s, as an artist, what I hope for. I have a certain amount of intent around making that artwork—perhaps it’s asking a question, or it’s an attempt at answering a question—and then it goes out into the world, and it has the opportunity to then engage with others. A good curator is like a good editor—she understands what the artist or the writer is trying to do and puts things in juxtaposition in a way that can help. It can be really generative. I had a show in 2006 in New York, and a curator asked for a piece that I made in 1995 and then a piece that I made in 2005. In my eye, I couldn’t understand why these works would go together. Then when they were in the same space, it made me think about new works. So, I’m really grateful for curators. I’m also really grateful for the audience, because when people ask questions, are challenged by something, or don’t get something, all of those things are also generative.

BG: How did Sidwell Friends shape your work and the person you are now?

SC: There’s something about Quaker values, this idea that everyone has something to offer and that everyone has a potential part in the community—it forms a kind of solidarity. That is something I hope for as I’m making work. Another thing I would say is that the reason my parents sent me to Sidwell Friends is that it had the reputation of knowing how to work with students who are intellectually capable and who are also creative in lots of ways. Sidwell nurtured that. I took some classes with Percy Martin. One of things that Percy did in our art classes, he just allowed us space. It was a space to be and think creatively. But even within that space, there was room for diligence and criticality, which, as an artist, you find your balance between those two things: the space and the discipline.

BG: You went to Amherst—and you did not take a single studio class there?

SC: I ended up majoring in psychology because I was following in my father’s footsteps. He was a psychiatrist, and I was really interested in the way that the mind works. My parents’ graduation present from Amherst was to send me to West Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, and study traditional art forms in West Africa.WhenI came back from that trip, I knew I wanted to go to art school. Enough of doing everything for everybody else. I went to the Art Institute of Chicago, and the first art class I took there felt like I got oxygen in my lungs. It just felt like, “Oh my gosh, this is what I’ve been waiting for.” I realized that art was one of the hardest and most challenging things for me, but something that I needed to do to under- stand the world around me.

BG: What is the process you go through to choose symbols, and how have you chosen to work with them over time? I’m thinking of two here in particular: hair and flags.

SC: You could sum up my whole practice in hair and flags. I was trained as a textile artist. Textiles have the ability to speak—I mean that literally. There are ways in which people learn how to weave textile structures while they’re singing into the cloth. You understand the pattern and how you’re supposed to weave the cloth through a work song. In that sense, the song becomes a score, a kind of text. But even as I say text, you hear its relationship to the word textile. And text and textile come from the Greek, meaning to weave. So literally ancient Greeks were like: Text and cloth are the same thing. It makes me think of this quotation when it comes to flags, about the power of a textile: A flag can be a piece of cloth that makes the “guts of men grow bold.” That’s something that poet John Agard said and it’s true. It’s just a piece of cloth, but as soon as it becomes a symbol and is imbued with meaning—whether that be nationalism, hate, patriotism, civil liberties, civil rights—the cloth is capable of absorbing all that potency, that language. The other thing is that we’re walking around swaddled in cloth all day, every day. When I teach textiles, I often ask students to think of a time when they are not engaged in cloth. And it’s maybe a moment in the shower—then you grab your towel, or you step on the bathmat. We’re constantly touching cloth, which means that we have a visceral understanding, a haptic, nonverbal relation- ship with the medium, so it strikes deep.

With hair, I have so much to say about hair. Sometimes I’m working with actual human hair, which is to say that I’m working with DNA. I’m also working with the power of our ancestors in each strand of hair. Hair is the fiber that we grow, and so each strand of hair is also an ancestral strand. We think of ourselves as being individuals, but not one of us is here without all the people who came before us. And all those people are codified in a strand of hair that might get just washed down the sink. Everybody is in that hair that holds all that DNA. It’s powerful, powerful stuff. If you plucked one of your hairs and one of my hairs and we looked at our DNA, then as human beings we’re essentially the same. Phenotypically, we would be divided, according to what the anthropologists did so many years ago, into different races, but genetically, we’re the same. So, because of the constructions around race, the kind of hair that I grow and the kind of hair that you grow separate us. But the hair itself, the DNA in it, actually brings us together. That’s power.

I’m interested in the etymology of mundane objects. The more everyday something is, like the hair we grow or the cloth that we surround ourselves with, because they are so common, my hope is that when someone encounters my work, they might think about those everyday objects differently.

BG: You’re talking about etymology of words, etymology of art, the mundane. But you’re also deconstructing sacred symbols.

SC: Specifically, the deconstruction of a Confederate battle flag. There were many Confederate flags. But the one that we use and the one that we commonly think of as being the Confederate flag is the one that got popularized by the KKK, and it is associated with white terrorism. In the piece Unraveling, I invite people to stand next to me, and just with our hands, we pick apart a Confederate battle flag. It’s slow work. One of the things that happens is that people realize that they know cloth, but they don’t actually understand how cloth is structured. To undo the damage of white supremacy, which rears its ugly head daily in this nation, is to understand its structure at a granular level, to understand it at a grand level, and all the spaces in between.

Then there’s the additive property, like the $5 bill and putting an afro on Abraham Lincoln, which is admittedly funny. But I like to unpack humor by saying, “Why is it funny for Abraham Lincoln to have an afro on him?” In part, it’s funny because I’m collapsing 1864 with 1964. Maybe it’s also funny because Abraham Lincoln didn’t grow that kind of hair. But then you think, “Well, lots of African Americans don’t grow the kind of hair that they don.” In fact, in this nation, we have to pass laws to say that it’s okay to grow the hair that we grow and wear it naturally. The CROWN Act is literally saying, “The way your hair grows from your head, it’s okay for you to let that happen as opposed to straightening it.” That’s what The CROWN Act is saying. Imagine if people who grow straight hair were told that they had to perm their hair to have it be afros. You think it’s funny because there’s already this hierarchy of white is right and anything else is not. So, it’s funny when Abraham Lincoln is wearing an afro, and it’s not at all funny when Beyoncé—and I love Beyoncé, so this is no disrespect—has her hair long and blond. Nobody thinks, “Oh, that’s hilarious what she’s doing.” The other thing I like to say about that piece is that I’ve made 44 of those $5 bills with the afro stitched on them, and not one of them sold for $5, not any- where close—so the value is the afro!

BG: You’re holding in both hands the subjugation and the celebration of humanity at the same time. That is what your art does and why it’s so resonant now and so important.

SC: When I think about the hate that is perpetrated in this nation, the virulence of it is the fear of losing the privileges that come with the formation of whiteness, as opposed to realizing that literally nobody’s free until everybody’s free. There’s a way in which people are trapped by their own privilege and it’s hard to see that, because you just experience the privilege. And I walk with lots of privileges. I walk with class privilege, educational privilege, and so I’m always trying also to unpack that. How are my privileges undermining other people’s freedoms? We can’t just finger point; we also have to say, “If we’re all in this together, then how can I do the work of turning the mirror on myself, so that I can make sure I’m doing my part to turn unfreedoms into freedoms?”

BG: Talk about the importance of literature and its influence on your work.

SC: I started a project called the Solidarity Book Project to acknowledge how much books have influenced my life and how they have shaped me. I ask other people to consider the books that have shaped their thinking around solidarity as well. Together, we’re making a collaborative monument to solidarity made of books. Books get sculpted with the iconic solidarity fist. And every time someone makes a book or dials in with their definition of solidarity, Amherst College sets aside money, anywhere from $25 to $100. They’re setting aside up to $100,000 to go to Black and indigenous communities, who could benefit from having greater access to books and book knowledge. It’s artwork that can help change other people’s lives, and I’m really honored that Amherst agreed to do that.

BG: What does solidarity mean to you?

SC: Solidarity is the lifeblood that holds communities together. I think about solidarity as something that is in flux but leaning toward the goal of making sure that all of us are cared for. If we’re not all cared for, then really none of us are cared for. Solidarity is an ecosystem that requires all the parts to be in constant interaction with one another. I’m answering you with a metaphor, but that’s the best I can do as an artist.

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