My name is Sonya Clark, I'm an artist and a professor, I teach at Amherst College and my work is
rooted in the materiality of objects and the histories that we can learn through those
So when I was making Abacus I was thinking about an Abacus which is used traditionally as a counting
device as a way of measuring quantity. In this case I turned it into a clock so it's measuring time.
I wanted the Abacus to also speak about the materiality of beads themselves, the way in which beads
have been used to signal identity, to signal how we are in the world and who we are in the world,
but also how they've been used politically in terms of colonial structures to take things away from
people: to take away people's livelihoods,their land and freedom.
So in this case the way I wanted to insert the human being was not only through a small object, you
know an abacus is a tool so already the hand is there or you know that it is something that is hand
held. But to make the beads themselves out of my hair, which is a stand in not just for my ancestors
but for all of us who are of African descent. And so my hair becomes the beads in the abacus to talk
about what happens specifically to those of African descent through this process of history and time
and measuring freedom.
Edifice and Mortar
So Edifice and Mortar in its title; I was really thinking that an edifice is a kind of building but
it's also a way in which one structures a kind of thinking. I was thinking about how America has
built its Empire, modeled itself in the Roman Empire, which is held in the historical imagination as
this great empire, but of course it too was an empire that was entirely built on slavery. And so
America modeled that. And so this idea of who we look to, how Europeans, or looking to european
heritage to say “Oh let’s hold this up” but not realizing that the very edifice, the very structure
of that history was built on a faulty premise, on the backs of enslaved people. So it seemed
important that it needed to be a physical structure like a building, it also seemed important that
it be about text because so much of what we rely in terms of who we think about, who we are as a
Nation, is based on things like "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created
equal"; and so those are the words of the declaration of independence that are stamped on Edifice
and Mortar and even in those words there’s the problem of all Men and certainly not all men because
didn't include Black men. And of course women and certainly nonbinary people would not have been
included in this, in this structure and the foundation of our nation.
And then it was a wall because we have a very dangerous, pro-fascist president who is a xenophobe and a
racist, who has been attempting to build a wall to separate those that he has demonized through his racist
lens and white supremacist lens, and this wall is also a flag, an upside down flag. So this notion of
thinking about what we are building, how are we building, how are these histories tied to what we've built
I was thinking also more recently about Sadiya Hartman’s recent essay, where she talks about America will
never get to its true democracy until it contends with the injustices and freedoms of Black and Brown
people, of Indigenous people, of Black people, of Latinx people, and so this is, we’re never actually going
to build anything until we contend with the faulty premise on which the nation was founded.
The piece, also like Abacus, its Mortar is made out of hair, and that hair was gathered from salons in
Richmond VA, Black hair Salons in Richmond VA; Richmond of course being one of the largest slave ports in
the nation, and so tying in, again using the hair and the DNA of people who are currently in Richmond,
African American people who are currently in Richmond, to talk about the labor that literally built, or
holds the structure of America together. And there is another way of reading it too that under the weight of
the bricks, there is this pressure.
The last little bit that I'd like to say about this piece is that it really does point to the Roman empire
and American empire that tie together, and how there's a way in which we don't even see the problems of that
historical tie. And so the back of the wall, each brick is stamped with a brick-stamp, borrowed directly
from the way the brick stamps were made and used in the 2nd c. or so in the Roman empire. And sometimes
those stamps had a crescent shape, and the crescent shape would have the name of the person who owned the
clay pit, the name of the person who owned the enslaved person and sometimes even the name of the enslaved
person who was making the brick. So the maker is present in this brick stamp. So I took this arc shape and
turned it into an afro, and then pointed to this etymological slippage, this word history that lives on in
our language in a very subtle but disturbing way. And that's the word "Ciao", the very common greeting. I
often joke that it's the thing that Italy exports even more than olive oil is the word ciao. Everyone knows
that Ciao means hello or goodbye, and it makes you sort of feel like you're kind of cool because you're
using this word Ciao. Ciao comes directly from schiavo which means slave. So when we are saying hello and
goodbye to one another, using the word Ciao, we’re actually saying “I am your slave.” And so that kind of
slippage is the kind of thing finding, digging at the roots of language, digging at the roots of history,
all of those things are what came together in this piece.
Materiality and Meaning
One of the things that happens is that I actually think there's so much complexity in materials themselves,
that I think that materials that human beings have been working with for a long time have this distinct
ability to absorb our histoires and also reflect them back at us. And so in the case of Edifice and Mortar,
there's literally a blue mirror, which is what approximates the upside down flag to reflect back at us. But
the idea of a brick; you see a brick you know a brick, you know a brick wall, you feel like you know a brick
wall, and then my idea here is to say, but do you really know about bricks? And who made these bricks that
we take for granted. And you know, these buildings that we’re proud of, what is the labor and the sweat and
the toil and the lives that were given for these edifices to be constructed? So I actually think it's the
power of the materials to draw out the stories.
And if I’m really honest, then what happens when I’m bringing together bits of history and materials, as I'm
making the piece, more emerges. The piece speaks to me and I think “oh goodness” it's also about this and
it’s also about that. And then the audience, as they say, completes the work. You know when someone asks a
question, or doesn't see something in my artistic intent but sees something else, then the work has this
very generous capacity to absorb that story, and those questions, and those inquiries as well and that's
beyond my making. But if I’m privy to those queries then they become part of my narrative as well. So one
hopes that the work outlives the seed of the idea that was planted, and it can grow and grow and grow beyond
my lifetime and in the minds of many people who experience the work that is my hope, that it doesn't just
get locked into maybe my intention or my original intention but it can continue to be generative.
And also, it does of course signal America in a number of ways, of course there's the American flag, there's
the African American hair, Richmond itself, which is the first place that I made that piece specifically for
the inaugural show of the opening of the Institute for Contemporary Art in Richmond, VA. And Richemond is
very much a brick city so it feels like the place right? But it's larger than that because bricks are in so
many places in the world, right? And while the African American hair, the Black hair that was gathered there
in Richmond, it matters to me that it was gathered in Richmond, it still signals Africanity, right? And of
course in the roman empire, there wasnt this sense of slavery tied to racial constructs as it is now but it
certainly is in in the United States of America. Every day, all day, as America tries to work it’s way
towards democracy it has to contend and redress the issues of racial disparity, racism, racial injustice,
racial inequality and every time it doesn't -- the democracy falters and we haven't gotten there yet. And
it's continuing to falter.
Well, it’s interesting because I had not ever really thought about that shirt as being striped.
So the shirt is a white men's dress shirt, and so I selected a white dress shirt, a man’s dress shirt to
signal a kind of class, and class structures in particular. And I did intentionally think about using the
back of the shirt, what that meant and there was some logic to using the back of the shirt in terms of
stitching through it and then corn-rowing but using the back of the shirt to think about really disturbing
iconic images of enslaved people whose backs are scarred from being abused by white people. And watching the
skin, like keloid and all of that so really thinking about the suffering of that kind of abuse but putting
it in this place with something that can signal a kind of class that is often attached to whiteness, verses
a level of class that is often attached to Blackness and putting those two together and saying, okay what
constitutes manhood here, in Three Fifths of a man.
Here I'm thinking now, I’ve been reading a lot, so I’m thinking about Zadie's Smith's recent book that just
came out, like that just came out, that she wrote during the pandemic, and I think it’s called something
like Intimations, but I was just reading an essay in there where she refers to what it means to be a natural
woman versus a "real man," like nobody says a natural man, right? Like being a man, that’s just being.
Anyway, I don’t really want to get into gender politics much because the piece is really about masculinity
in this way, but also this notion of what constitutes someone being a man at all, women aren't being
regarded except maybe that the hair-dressing refers to a hair-styling technique that is sometimes
attributed, sometimes gendered, though not only in the African American community, I mean Black men get
their hair corn-rowed as much as Black women do and that happens globally as well. Anyway, this reading that
you have of it being like a prisoner's stripes I had not thought of that at all, and so I also want to share
with you something that is a bit of serendipity that happened with this piece. So the intent was to stitch
through this white dress, white man's dress shirt, every time I say that it sounds like I’m saying this
white man’s dress shirt but that’s actually a little verbal play, right? A white man’s or a white dress
shirt for a man, right? So that kind of an intentional pun. To stitch through it with these black threads
and then manipulate those threads and if had done all the way across there would have been five rows, five
corn-rows. But, my studio assistant and I got to three rows across and I just said, “that's it, stop,” you
know. And so the intent was that it was going to be whole, and it was more impactful for it to be at 3/5.
And the number five was just, oh I want them about this wide, you know, and it just works. So that’s a good
example of how sometimes the artwork lets you know what it needs to be beyond my original intent, and I
think it's a stronger piece, because the materials and the artwork itself gained its own agency beyond my
vision for what it might have been.
Of course the piece is about mass incarceration, of course it is, because there's no 3/5 law without the
notion of mass incarceration. I mean mass incarceration is about the plantation to prison pipeline, I mean
the plantation to prison connection, right? When the nation ended the civil war one of the things it had to
contend with was, are Black people going to be treated as people right?-- actual citizens -- I would say
we're still answering that question. Where are we going to get free labor? That got solved through the
prison industrial complex. And also in terms of citizenry, the mass incarceration of Black and Bro wn people
strips away their right to vote, so to participate in the democracy. So the prison industrial complex
becomes a two-fer, right? It disrupts families, it takes away your agency as a citizen of the United States
and it also, you are likely there for reasons that other people would not find themselves there.
And that’s if you're lucky enough to make it to jail if you haven't been killed in your house or by walking
down the street or by doing the things that human beings do that can land a Black human being in a grave as
the nation watches.
The one thing I didn't see was the evidence of the stripes on the white, that’s the one reading that I
hadn't thought about how that connected to uniforms and the piece is about uniforms of course, so your
reading is right. I mean, you know, a white man’s dress shirt is a uniform and it signals something very
intentional, okay. And we also know that when we see the dangerous images that are sort of daily depictions
of racial inequity and injustice, you know you pick up a newspaper and you see someone who is being accused
of a crime, and what you see is if that person is Black or Brown, you see a mugshot. And then you hear of
someone who has also been accused of a crime, and that is a white man and he is in business attire and
humanized by his family. Those are long, old, old, old depictions, right? So, the way that the uniform plays
in this is actually intentional but I hadn't thought about the prison uniform so thank you for that.
Because the anthropologists have set us up into racial groups and long before that of course with Nell
Painter's work on the history of white people, whiteness theory has set up this othering of everybody who
does not fit into the group of whoever is not deemed white at the time. One of the racial designations is
the curl pattern of one's hair. It’s not the only racial designator and certainly I have people in my own
family who are absolutely identified as Black people who don't grow the same kind of hair that I do, right?
Their hair is more like yours actually. But hair becomes, when you see this kind of hair, you know that it's
signalling Blackness. So not only is it signaling Blackness but it is also the presence of my ancestors, the
actual presence of my ancestors. It's my DNA and it draws a direct line back to the continent of Africa,
through the curl pattern of my hair. So while it is uniquely mine, it is also contextually much broader than
that. And I often think about how hair in its DNA holds the language that connects all of us as humans. You
know we're all so close to one another. And in fact, someone who phenotypically might not look like you,
might genetically be closer to you. And all of that is written in our hair as well, all of that encoding is
written in our hair.
So I’m really fascinated that hair is one of those fibers, extruded from our brains, not exactly for our
brains but extruded from our heads, but both signals race and therefore difference and distinctiveness, but
also has in it encoded in it the DNA, the very stuff that says “oh, we’re all human”.
Like hair does both of those things. And I’ll go one step further that, if, assuming the anthropologists
have it right, we're all from Africa. So, that also becomes this other thing as well. I mean it’s sort of
pushing at this notion of race and how race is designated but also simultaneously saying “yeah, all your
people are in my hair as well, right? All tangled up.” We, you know, Dinkinesh is our great great great
great great great great great great great great great great great, some call her Lucy, grandmother, right?
So all that is tied up in hair.
And you know also, I was trained as a textile artist, and so that’s really important to me. And so is this
idea that the fiber that we grow using that as as material. But one of the things that I have to say is
that, I think about this a lot, I am literally putting my body into my work, or the bodies of other people
into the work. So the work is not about, .. I keep saying it’s signaling this or it’s signalling that. But
it's actually me, you know. I am in the work, or in the case of Edifice and Mortar, all those people whose
hair was swept up, they asked everybody you know, if it was okay, but they would sweep it up at the end of
the day and then I used that for the mortar. The work isn't about them, the work is actually them. Or I
should say, the work is actually us. So hair also becomes not just self-portraiture or portraiture but it is
actually human beings. Like how can you get that many human beings into an artwork? You use their hair. And
it's more that those beings whose hair was plucked to be in that piece, it’s all of their ancestry as well.
So it’s this multiplicity of people in every strand of hair. It’s powerful, powerful, powerful material.
John Agard wrote that flags are a piece of cloth that make the oh I’m not going to get it right, make the, I
think it’s like the hearts of men grow bold, it’s not their hearts. But I trained as a textile artist,
right? And I got drawn to textiles, because first of all it's a material, like everybody's wearing a
textile, right? You know, we don’t walk around nude so we have a visceral understanding of cloth already,
and it becomes like a second skin for us, right? So it’s how we present ourselves to the world and it can
also represent us. And flags do that too. They’re a sense of, it gives people a sense of national identity,
a sense of patriotism etc. etc. So yes, I think about flags as being incredibly powerful things, I think of
them as being, they’re not only symbols, they also have this physicality because we often associate flags
with being a cloth flag, right? So this idea of it, billowing in the breeze, right, is almost, you can
imagine yourself at the top of a flag pole and, like the shirt you’re wearing, that suddenly it’s billowing
in the breeze and the freedom of that almost like a wing, right? Almost like an extension of your body.
And also this notion, I’m looking out at the trees from my window here and thinking about how wind activates
the language of the leaves. So this way that a flag can quickly turn into an anthem, you know, when it
billows in the breeze. You know how many times do you hear the anthem, the star spangled banner and there's
an image of billowing in the breeze as if the flag itself is singing, right? So it's powerful and they're
intentionally powerful and they’re made to be bold enough so that you can see them from far away, which is
for the purpose of war, right? Forming nation states that this belongs to us, that we are taking over, you
know the militarization around flags as well.
Flags are symbols, they are also material. I think they are monuments that in one sense have a lot more
power than a hunk of metal or a hunk of concrete or stone. And the only reason I say that is because as
monuments are getting toppled; flags, because they're symbols, we're taught them so early on that you can
say “we’re going to remove these flags” but people still have the symbol in their mind and moreover, they
can replicate that symbol.
And to me that's a different kind of monument and a very powerful monument. So Robert E. Lee, that statue,
whatever will happen to it in Richmond, I mean a lot of really amazing things have happened to it for now.
But when it gets taken down, it's not like someone's just going to draw a guy on a horse and everybody’s
going to know it's Robert E. Lee because there are a lot of confederate traitors to this nation, who were
guys on horses, who ended up being in monuments. But if someone said, like after Dylann Roof's racially
motivated mass murder, “that’s it, no more confederate flags, we’re not selling anymore'' everyone would
still know what that looked like and you could draw one, and it could exist again, in it’s replication. So,
my thought around this, is when we define what a monument is, is a monument simply something that has been
erected to supposedly honor someone or in the case of Confederate monuments, to act as symbols of
suppression and oppression. A flag can be removed but so easily replicated, right? that it can still signal
all of the things that it is intended to signal even if it is no longer present, it still exists in your
mind. That's powerful stuff. That seems to me to be monumental stuff.
And I mean that as a metaphor, I suppose but I think I mean as more than a metaphor as well which is why I
named a whole show Monumental Cloth. Which was about the little known Truce flag, that when confederate
army, when Lee’s confederate army surrendered at Appomattox, they used a humble piece of cloth, the only
white or predominantly white cloth that they could find to signal their surrender and truce. And it had
these three minimal little red stripes on either side so thankfully for those three little stripes, its has
a design element that can be replicated and seen and understood. But that, that flag is one that, when I did
the project around repurposed dishcloth, that became the truce flag and surrender flag of the confederate
soldiers at Appomattox. And one could argue that led to the end of the civil war, that nobody knew that flag
and everyone knows the battle flag means that someone has very, very intentionally and successfully
continued waving the concepts that are embedded in the confederacy.
There's no way that we should know that confederate flag or any other for a lost war if anything we should
know the truce flag, because that was about the nation attempting to come back together. But so many people
have asked "did you make up that flag? Is this an artists’ invention?" No, it was in the Smithsonian
American History museum display you know and it was an actual object.
I used to post pretty regularly on Instagram, and I posted this piece called “These Days This History This
Country” that's the name of that little piece and it's little intentionally. You know I'd been making big
flag pieces, and that sort of thing. And this is made from flag day parade flags, like the littlest flag,
like the most, seemingly inconsequential flag, because small shouldn't be a problem, right? But small is
because of how many small ones there are, right? And that there are any confederate you know, baby flags at
all, you know they shouldn't be around at all except maybe in history books. So I wanted to take the most
common flag that someone could own, right, like the cheapest one and see how I could use the language of
flag and symbol with as much potency as possible. Like take the least valued flag, the symbol of the flag
but the least value, the cheapest ones I could find, unravel them, and then process-wise half weave them
I’m always interested in how people read that piece. Because some people see it as the two flags being woven
together and some people see it as the flags being taken apart, right? And it frankly was very much like
3/5, that was, because I’d made a piece like this before where I’d woven the confederate battle flag and the
American Flag together, and I was attempting to do a similar version with this and got halfway and said
"that's actually more potent" right, because are we pulling them apart or putting them together? That is the
question. And everyday it might be a thread one direction or the other direction, right, but they certainly
haven’t been completely taken apart. One could argue that they might be together but the work isn't taking
them apart, right? So there’s something about that, like it’s somehow in motion. What I was going to say
about instagram, is that I posted it when I first made it. And then more recently reposted it and said that
it seems to be a painful representation of where we are in the United States right now. And it’s the last
thing that I posted since, and that’s really odd for me, I posted it in May and by now I would’ve posted
like two or three things a day given the current news cycle and the things that have been going on in my
mind. But I've found that these two very small flags hold enough potency that everyday I say “yep they’re
still saying the same thing” that I think needs to be said. I add hashtags on the post but I think that
again, using the power of the symbol of flags to, there's already a language there, so I’m using that
language to speak even more.
I aspire for work to be simple and complex. Like I want a child - and it's not that they don't have capacity
for complexity but they often don't have the language for it. I like it when a child can approach the work
and can articulate something about of it. And the deepest wisest elder can also do the same. And to me then
the work has connected with multiple across that age span and that gives me ; it means I've approached some
of what I hope to do as an artist