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Professor uses her head — literally — to win international art award

Much like tattoo artists who see bodies as canvases, Sonya Clark turned her own head into a canvas for hair artists

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An art project based on the premise that hairstyling is the first textile art form earned a Virginia Commonwealth University professor the coveted top award at ArtPrize, an independent, international art competition held annually in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Sonya Clark, chair of the Department of Craft and Material Studies in the VCU School of the Arts, shared this year’s juried grand prize award with Anila Quayyum Agha. But whereas Agha’s “Intersections,” an installation piece that takes up an entire room, brings the audience inside the art itself, Clark herself is the canvas for her “Hair Craft Project.” Or rather, her head is.

Clark enlisted 12 local hairstylists to manipulate her hair into a work of art and create an equivalent piece on a hand-stitched silk canvas using silk thread. The results were a stunning display of talent passed down through generations.

“When I look at these hairstyles,” Clark said, “I know they’re on my body. … I thought it was very important to insert my body into this space, to be the canvas for them.”

Getting your hair done is a personal, intimate experience, Clark said. It’s a way of having art performed on your body. Perhaps that explains why hair is so central to her art practice, as medium, metaphor and subject matter. She sees how hair plays into race, culture and identity.

This summer, when colleagues at Kendall College of Art & Design in Grand Rapids asked if they could curate her work, Clark decided to submit the Hair Craft Project, about which she was still excited.

“I thought, ‘Well it would be interesting to have that project there for a number of reasons,’” she said. “One of the reasons is the way that I ran that project here, I tried to infuse it into as many community groups that I belong to. So, I obviously belong to the art world here in Richmond. I belong to the VCU community as well, but I also belong to the black community here as well, and those things intersect in places, but not enough as far as I’m concerned.”

The Hair Craft Project succeeded in its mission to bridge the hair world with the art world, as well as race, gender and class, Clark said. Plus, it highlights a business —hair care — that is both thriving and an American legacy business, she said, citing Madam C.J. Walker.

“[She] became one of the first self-made women millionaires out of hair care and the aesthetics business and then used that money for good. When women couldn’t vote, when black people couldn’t vote, she had an agency. So it fills me. And then to be connected with the people who do it all day, every day -- to shine the light on what they’re doing – was impactful for me as an artist. But also to know that people in Grand Rapids cared.”

In addition to her half of the $200,000 grand prize, Clark also won the juried 2-D award.

 

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Hair Craft Project 2014 - Jamilah Williams (left); Kamala Bhagat (right)
Hair Craft Project 2014 - Jamilah Williams (left); Kamala Bhagat (right)