ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Sonya Clark is all about hair. At least, that’s the first impression when one encounters her works on canvas — detailed arrangements of braids rendered in thick black thread, stitched down to emulate the elaborate patterns of cornrows and other braided hairstyles most commonly worn by African and African American people (and occasionally appropriated by white people, to much side-eye and consternation). In reality, hair and hair-related accoutrement are a canny medium for Clark to delve into some of the deepest issues surrounding identity, beauty, and racial legacy. “Hair can measure hegemony within our culture,” Clark says via email. “I am convinced that when Afros become coveted, mainstream hairstyles, worn by those who do not naturally grow them — in the same way straight blonde hair is coveted and worn by those who do not naturally grow it — that will be one indicator of racial balance and equality.”
Clark has made a wise choice, as her art is near-universally accessible: one need look no farther than one’s own head in seeking a jumping-off point to relate to her pieces, though there are myriad other associations as well, rooted in her materials and formalist or Postminimalist aesthetics. “I make work from the personal with the intention of connecting to others,” says Clark. This is especially true for an installation of new and collaborative works on display at the University of Michigan’s (U of M) Institute for the Humanities, curated by Amanda Krugliak. Clark’s visit to U of M included a lecture as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series, an occasion to engage students in hands-on exercises designed to heighten communication and empathy, and the installation of a piece that offers continued interaction throughout the run of the show.