Skip to content
January 9, 2024

Celebrating Our Roots

Written by:

For Sonya Clark, art and history are interwoven—literally. The award-winning fiber artist and academic has been applauded by one critic for “the acrobatics and virtuosity she displays with mundane materials” in using hair, cloth and beads to create distinctive pieces celebrating Black culture and challenging injustice.
Clark sees her work, shown in hundreds of galleries and museums around the world, not only honoring heritage but also, in part, “a pushback against all of the oppression, subjugation and dehumanization that happens in this nation and in many other places in the world.” Describing her pieces as “unequivocally political,” The New York Times said they offer “poignant, clearsighted reminders of this country’s legacy of racial violence.”
Some of Clark’s best pieces from the last 25 years can be seen in an exhibition currently touring the country, with WayMaker among the sponsors: Detroit (Cranbrook Art Museum), Atlanta (High Museum of Art) and New York City (Museum of Arts and Design). Sonya Clark: We Are Each Other takes its title from Gwendolyn Brooks’ famous poem, emphasizing Clark’s belief that art doesn’t only celebrate and commemorate but can also help bring people together through shared experiences, creating community.
Speaking with WayMaker Journal, Clark references how singer and activist Paul Robeson described artists as “gatekeepers of truth” and “civilization’s radical voice.” Like griots, “we’re pulling from the past, attending to the present and pointing towards the future,” says Clark. “But that doesn’t shut anyone else out from taking the stories that we might be manifesting through our artworks and bringing their own stories to those artworks as well.”
Clark has invited people to be part of some of her projects, such as “Unraveling,” in which gallery visitors had the opportunity to join in her taking apart a Confederate flag thread by thread. In Beaded Prayers, they were asked to contribute a written prayer or hope placed in a sealed pouch. The original project toured the world for a decade and was reimagined in Detroit in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 4,000 people created memorial pouches commemorating loved ones for the city’s Healing Memorial.
 ‘Bone deep’
Art isn’t just about looking back, though. Harvests don’t happen if you don’t turn the soil and allow things to grow again, Clark says: “So that means looking to the past, looking at the present, toward the future, seeing what we should have learned better from the past, seeing what we did learn from the past, unlearning things that are actually not truths and holding onto things that are reemerged as truths and finding our innovation in the midst of that good work . . . all of those things are really useful tools to make for our better and brighter future.”
Professor of art at her alma mater, Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, Clark traces her own artistic thread back to childhood. Her maternal grandmother, Chummy, was a professional tailor who taught her how to sew and who sang in the church choir. While young, Clark learned to braid her sister’s hair, which “embedded [hair styling] as an art form,” she says. “My hands were learning this agility . . . those fine motor skills are often the same ones that I’m using when I’m doing beadwork or any other mediums that I’m using.”
Using human hair in some of her pieces connects her and those who view them with the past in a deeply personal way, she believes. Containing people’s DNA, those strands are “a repository of all those ancestors that have come before us.” In addition to weaving hair into visual pieces, she has turned it into music.
One time Clark used a dreadlock to rehair a violin bow. Then she asked jazz musician Regina Carter (with whom Clark’s musician husband, Darryl Harper, also a professor at Amherst, tours) to use it to play the classic hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” “as a way of hearing our ancestors’ voices.”
Jason Moran, another musician with whom Harper performs, took that recording and remastered it. The result, in Moran’s words, is “now bone deep,” says Clark. “The ancestors are with us and in us. Regina managed to activate their DNA to get sound. Jason then remastered that sound,” from an idea involving her husband and her memories of her grandmother’s voice, with “all of those things coming together.”
When she graduated from Amherst with a degree in psychology, Clark’s parents—who came to the United States from the Caribbean—funded a trip for her to study art in Africa. While in the Ivory Coast, she realized “this is actually what I want to do: make art that is connected to our culture and connected to who we are and connected to our roots.” Following studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Cranbrook Academy of Art, Clark taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Virginia Commonwealth University before returning to Amherst in 2017.
‘Creative act’
As a teacher, Clark aims to impart vision as well as information by emphasizing the importance of soul, not just skill. “You can be incredibly skilled in something, but it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily artful,” she says. “It’s our responsibility to bring innovation into what we do, otherwise we’re just repeating what’s been done in the past. And if you’re not adding something to it, then you actually aren’t doing the work of the ancestors.”
Clark also seeks to encourage an awareness of the importance of community through hands-on learning. She will teach three groups different skills, have them practice and then instruct the others in what they have learned, “because I know as a teacher, if you teach something, then you truly understand it. And if you can teach someone, if you can get it from your body into their body, that transmission of the skill is an act of connectivity, and the act of connectivity is actually the more important thing than the skill.”
Clark also emphasizes an openness to making mistakes, which she says “are often the manure that something good can grow out of. So, a mistake might actually be an innovation.” That’s an especially important lesson for students at elite schools, she notes, because “a lot of them have been trained to get an A, do the right thing, stay within the bounds, and I am trying to get them to unlearn some of those things.” As part of that, she ends each class by asking students what they have learned and unlearned that day.
Everyone is creative in some ways, Clark says, lamenting how that idea gets lost somewhere along the way. “I think that we are all born incredibly artful,” she says. But then “someone tells you that you can’t draw something representationally and you say, ‘I guess I’m not an artist.’ As opposed to saying, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting way of drawing a bird. We’ve never seen someone draw a bird like that.’”
So often, we fail to recognize our own creativity. Yet “we improvise all the time,” Clark says. “When we speak, we don’t say the same sentences over and over again; we’re always pulling from vocabulary, things that we’ve heard, and improvising. That’s a creative act, just to express yourself. You are constantly improvising, which is an act of innovation, which is an act of creativity. Now, we notice it when we see someone who does it masterfully with spoken word or hip-hop, but we all do it.
 “One of the reasons that we appreciate someone who knows how to spit or someone who really has a skill of hip-hop, is that it attends to something that we know is within us as well, that possibility.”  
From an interview with Louis Carr
“We’re pulling from the past, attending to the present and pointing towards the future.”
“If you’re not adding something to it, then you actually aren’t doing the work of the ancestors.”
This article was originally published in the Fall 2023 issue of WayMaker Journal.