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“State of the Art” opening-night speaker Sonya Clark on unraveling Confederate flags, the politics of hair, and the relativity of race

Sonya Clark didn’t plan to be ubiquitous in Minnesota. It just happened, one invitation after another, such that she will have artworks in three Twin Cities exhibitions this winter, at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, at All My Relations gallery, and in Mia’s upcoming “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now” survey of contemporary American artists. On February 18, she’ll give the opening-night talk at Mia.

Of course it didn’t just happen. Clark’s parents emigrated from Jamaica. She grew up in Washington, D.C. She went to Amherst to study psychology, her father’s profession, and when she graduated her parents gifted her a trip to the Ivory Coast with a prominent scholar of African art. She returned, not long after completing one undergraduate degree, determined to get another—at art school.

Works from Sonya Clark's Hair Craft Project, 2014.

Works from Sonya Clark’s Hair Craft Project, 2014.

It was at the Art Institute of Chicago, in the early 1990s, that she took Joseph Albers’s color theory to heart, the idea that color only exists in the context of other colors. And many years later, in 2001, when she traveled to Ghana, she experienced it in action. “I was called ‘Abruni,’” she recounts, “white person. Here, no one would think of me as white—I’m African-American. Historically, you know, America had the 1/64th rule: If you look a little black, you’re black. But in Ghana they draw the color line in a completely different place. If you look like you have a little European in you, which I certainly do, you’re white.”

Clark also began studying hair, particularly the connotations of straight vs. curly hair (European vs. African), a history of assumptions and prejudice. “Straight hair became associated with a kind of cleanliness, hair that can be combed—you can get the nits out,” she says. Curly hair, resistant to combing, was presumed dirty. The irony, she notes, is that nits, or lice, thrive in thin, straight hair. “People who grow their hair like I do,” she says, “can’t get lice. No lice. None. No need for a comb.”

Sonya Clark's work, part of her Albers Interaction Series, in Mia's "State of the Art" exhibition.

Sonya Clark’s work, part of her Albers Interaction Series, in Mia’s “State of the Art” exhibition.

Clark’s work in “State of the Art,” part of her Albers Interaction Series, literally wraps the history of hair around Albers’s ideas (particularly his Homage to the Square series), binding stacks of combs with brightly colored thread. What’s white?, she asks, what’s black? It’s all relative.

Last summer, Clark achieved unexpected notoriety for a piece brought into a New York show almost as an afterthought. After 10 years as an arts professor at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, she now lives in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. She began making art with the Confederate battle flag after Viriginia’s governor at the time proposed a Confederate History Month, without mentioning the obvious contribution of African-Americans to the South. “That pissed me off,” Clark says. So she created a Confederate battle flag and stitched what appeared to be black human hair into it, in the stars-and-stripes design of the American flag.

By the time the New York show was being readied, she had moved on to unraveling the battle flag itself. First as an artwork—piles of threads from a disassembled flag—and then as a performance, slowly undoing the threads in front of an audience. The curator of the New York show wanted a different work altogether—”the one piece in the show no one talks about,” Clark says self-deprecatingly—and asked for the unraveling as an also-ran. Clark and her assistants, observed in the Mixed Greens Gallery in Chelsea, managed to undo about an inch of a flag already about a quarter undone.

Sonya Clark and an audience volunteer, unraveling a Confederate flag at Mixed Greens gallery in New York

Sonya Clark and an audience volunteer, unraveling a Confederate flag at Mixed Greens Gallery in New York.

That was enough. The work became a sensation. The Huffington Post ran a piece on it. And then a white supremacist murdered parishioners at a Charleston church. The Confederate flag was under fire. Clark was in Europe at the time, doing research, but reporters managed to reach her. She was profiled in Mother Jones and Artnet News as a symbol of resistance, a proud moment tempered by reality.

“I’m still a little torn up about this,” she says. “My phone was ringing off the hook. When people died, suddenly everyone wanted my opinion. Well, my opinion is the same: Art can get us to talk about the symbolism. But ultimately, the biggest work that has to be done is not about the metaphor. What needs to be dismantled is the racial injustice embedded in the nation.”

Lately, and for a long time, Clark has been thinking about sugar—an industry that brought Africans to the Caribbean. “Sugar is so sweet to the tongue,” she says, “but people have lost their lives to it.” And she’s thinking about a roller-coaster she used to ride as a kid: the Rebel Yell, one of the oldest wooden roller-coasters still running, and how riders were encouraged to shout the confederate battle cry while riding it. She’s thinking about racism embedded in unusual places.

When she talks at Mia on February 18, she’ll explain where these metaphors begin and end. And how it’s not so hard to find them. “So much of this is foundational to us,” she says of racism in America. The hard part is rebuilding the foundation.