Art The Provides Understanding Can Promote Conversation.

*Photo above: Sonya Clark, Flat Twist on a Remnant of Idyllic Days, 2010. Courtesy the artist.

Published in the News & Record on Sept. 15, 2017

All that makes us alike, and all that makes us different, is contained in a single strand of hair.

How those strands are cut and colored and pulled together, whether they are straight, curly or kinky, twisted or braided, pulled into a pony-tail or bun, can lead people to make judgments about who we are and how we're treated. Gender, race, culture and class are bound within our hair, just as certainly as is our DNA.

That is the central theme of "Entanglements," an art exhibit at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art by Sonya Clark, who identifies her ancestry as African-American, Caribbean and Scottish. For African-American women, hair can be an homage to cultural roots, an expression of style and a political battleground all at once.

"In this country," Clark says, "hair is still used to negotiate race."

Just as the National Folk Festival used art and music to promote unity among people of different cultures, "Entanglements" uses art to promote understanding. Clark's thought-provoking works tug the viewer gently into a quiet meditation of subjects that more often produce animated and contentious discussions.

"Her art approaches these subjects in a non-confrontational way, using metaphor and allegory," co-curator Mary Anne Redding. says. "It's not threatening, but so powerful. If you are quiet and contemplative, you can have a different kind of conversation."

Most of the works are rendered in stark black-and-white as metaphor for racial politics. Central materials in Clark's textile works are real African-American hair, black, cotton thread simulating hair and hundreds of the small black combs that can be found in any barbershop.

The combs themselves are symbolic. Every African-American child has sat through hours of combing, enjoying the intimate ritual with a mother or sister, but wincing at the pull of the comb on tangles. The struggle to contain unruly locks can be seen as a metaphor for race, control, the struggle of fitting in, and the pain of being the "other."

Stacked on end and bound together, these combs become a highway with a dotted, white line down the center in a work called "Passing." It references the ability of light-skinned blacks to "pass" as whites, opening up a path of opportunity, but this work also can be seen as a metaphor for the Mexican border. Viewed vertically, it is a highway. Viewed horizontally, it is a wall.

In a companion piece, called "No Passing," the combs form a circle with a double-yellow line. Who is inside and who is outside the circle depends on your perspective.

In a smaller, more intricate work, the combs are bound into squares, with tapestries woven onto their frames to form portraits of Madame C.J. Walker and a group of black hairdressers with whom Clark worked in Richmond, Va., when she was a Distinguished Fellow in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University. Madam C.J. Walker, who was African-American, became one of America's first female millionaires, with a line of hair-care products she created for African-American women.

Each of the hairdressers featured in the tapestries created a hairstyle for Clark. An accompanying portrait shows Clark from the back, showcasing a spectacular braid design, and the hairdresser who created it facing forward. That collaborative project is explored in the book Hair Craft Project, which arose from her interpretation of hair as the first textile art form.

One striking use of the combs is seen in "Toothless." In this rectangular wall installation, the top rows of the combs are completely intact, but the lower rows start to show breakage that increases on the downward rows until the combs are toothless. A pile of broken teeth from the combs is heaped along the bottom of the artwork.

It is a metaphor for the life cycle, Redding says. We come into the world perfect and unformed, but as we go through life, things happen to change us and sometimes to wound us. By the end, we are toothless.

One of the most arresting pieces is "Flat Twist on a Remnant of Idyllic Days." A tapestry called "Idyllic Days," picturing Old South plantation life, is overlaid with African-American hair twists, sewn onto the fabric like thick vines. It makes visible the invisible component of that scene — the slave labor that made that idyllic lifestyle possible.

"Sugar Eye" takes a familiar image from the dollar bill — the triangle with the eye inside on top of the pyramid — and renders the white of the eye in sugar, one of the key products of the slave trade. The pupil of the eye is a ball of African-American hair. Much of the economy of the U.S. was built on the foundation of slave labor.

"Tendril" celebrates the beauty and wildness of hair in a single strand that gracefully loops and curls over a 50-inch canvas. When you get closer, you can see that it, too, is made from black combs.

"Long Hair," in which a continuous braid unfolds from a long scroll, pays homage to the lineage that is carried from generation to generation in our DNA, a strand of hair connecting people of today with all the generations that came before.

Our DNA is contained in a single strand of hair, but only a minuscule portion makes us different. The other 99.9 percent is what we have in common. If we remembered that one simple fact, how different our conversations might be.

Click HERE to watch an interview with co-curator, Mary Anne Redding.

Contact Susan Ladd at 336-373-7006 or , or follow her on Facebook at or on Twitter at @susanladdNR.