References to hair existed everywhere in this recent exhibition by Sonya Clark. As you walked into the spacious first floor gallery you were flanked, on the right, by a monumental portrait of Madam C.J. Walker composed of black pocket combs and, on the left, by a Victorian chair embellished with long braids made of black cotton thread that hang from the back and bottom. For those of you who don’t know of Walker, she is the black demigod of hair care.

The desire for straight, controllable hair has haunted black women to the extent that they drive (in part) a multi-billion dollar industry for hair care products. Walker (1867–1919), the first black female millionaire, built her business by specializing in products for black hair. By 1910, she had popularized the use of oil with a steel hot comb to achieve straightened hairstyles. Clark pays tribute to this woman in Madam C.J. Walker (2009) with pocket combs placed flat on the wall to form a 10-by-7-foot bust.

Adrienne’s Tale
(2008) is a 5-foot-long cluster of real dreadlocks dangling from a single strand and attached to the wall. Adrienne is an old friend of Clark’s who gave the artist her hair as a token of their friendship. In another piece, superimposed over a Confederate flag, are black Bantu knots and long, braided black threads in the configuration of the American flag. Clark is clever and whimsical in her use of hair to make poignant statements. And, yes, all the pieces seem to have a story, as in 3/5 (2010). A man’s white dress shirt with three long braids down the back suggests the founding fathers’ idea that a black man is worth merely three-fifths of a man.

The display reflected issues of identity and the obsession in the black community with hair; it brought to mind other African-American artists who have chosen hair as a medium to make statements about black beauty, such as David Hammons, Lorna Simpson, Eve Sandler and Yvette Smalls, to name just a few. Hair is a charged issue for women and particularly black women. The old wives’ tale that I grew up with warned one to be careful about disposal of hair for fear that birds would make a nest of it and drive the owner crazy.

Although Mona Hatoum beat Clark to the punch with her 1995 Hair Necklace, in 2006 Clark created a necklace of miniature Afro balls the size of large pearls sectioned off with gold wire. I keep track of the hair stories in contemporary art and there are many, but Clark is exceptional in sticking to an idea and exploring it fully.

Photo: Sonya Clark: 3/5, 2010, found men’s dress shirt, hanger, embroidery thread, 30 by 21 by 3 inches; at Snyderman-Works.