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A Legacy: Hair, Language, and Textiles

From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 1, Issue 1

A Legacy: Hair, Language, and Textiles

From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 1, Issue 1

Unraveling, 2015, battle flag of the Confederacy (cotton) 36 x 72 x 7 in. Pictured: Sonya Clark and Meg Roberts Arsenovic; performed with audience participation at Mixed Greens Gallery in New York, New York, and at the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Taylor Dabney, courtesy of the artist

Editor’s Note: At the “Present Tense” conference, Sonya Clark gave a powerful keynote lecture that earned a standing ovation. Here is a generous excerpt and an edited transcript of her talk.


When we use familiar materials in our work as craftspeople, we have the opportunity to connect with many people who also engage those materials. I want to talk with you about engaging through materials and thinking about those materials as language. I want to trace connections between hair and textiles and language. I want to invoke ancestral ties and evoke historical legacies, and I want to do this through the extended lens of what we’ve all come to this conference to share, celebrate, learn about, and critique: the field of craft.

I want to think about hair as textile, textile as language, hair as language. I do not want to do this alone. If you go alone, you can go fast. If we go together, we can go far. Im also thinking about creative participation, expertise, authorship, and framing communities. The ideas I am going to be sharing with you are so persistent in my practice that I cannot show you the work in a linear fashion. All the ideas seem to double back in this sort of funny way, like when the mountains kind of breathe themselves into the clouds, and then the clouds rain back into the mountains, only to start the cycle again.

But I might be getting ahead of myself here. Let me tell you a story of a remarkable woman: Chummy, my grandmother. She is now an ancestor. We were on this planet for only a decade together. She was an itinerant grandmother. None of us called her “Grandma.” We all called her Chummy, because she was everyones chum.

There is Chummy, working as a tailor. She would always say she was a tailor; she could sew a fine mens suit. Chummy sported the best hairstyle, an Afro. I’m just saying, its the best hairstyle – and also the best hair color. It is white. The Yoruba people present white as a color that talks about our ancestry, talks about wisdom, talks about peacefulness – because our elders, those who are about to become ancestors, have hair that turns white. I long for that Afro, and my gray hairs are slow in coming, so clearly I have a lot of wisdom I have not yet earned.

Hair and textiles and language. When I was a child, Chummy would say to me, “Come, stitch with me, and Ill tell you stories,” while she was sporting this great, gravity-defying, glorious white Afro. I knew who I wanted to be when I grew up: my first teacher, Chummy.

Hairdressing is, for me, the first textile art form. I have known this since I was a child. When my grandmother was teaching me how to sew in our house in Washington, DC, right across the street from us was the ambassador’s residence for the nation of Benin, a small West African country, at the time called Dahomey. The Ajibade family, Ambassador Ajibade and his family of 14, would just welcome us into their homes. Now, Im almost 50, so this was in the ’70s. My parents were decked out in the fashion of the era. My mom had her Afro. My dad had pants you could – I mean, you could hear them swing, those bellbottoms. When you have two children, and your neighbors have 12, you just drop your two children off at the neighbor’s house, and nobody notices. What would happen is we would get these glorious hairstyles. So as a young child, I connected textiles and stories – grand, glorious white Afros and hair as a sculptural art form.

I also remember sitting in between the legs of some cool teenager who was doing my hair in some sculptural hairstyle. I knew that the hairstyle I would be walking with for the next two weeks was art and sculpture on my head. These were very early seeds that were planted, and they are still with me today.

I have never forgiven my mother for only having one photograph of the glorious hairstyles I donned in the ’70s, and so in my early works I decided I was going to try to remember those hairstyles, try to remember those fleeting works of art that lived on my head.

One of the things I would like to share with you is that, as we think of cultures that use hairstyling in very grand and complicated ways, the notion of hairstyling is not one of vanity, but it’s actually one of ritual.

While I was in DC, getting these amazing hairstyles, having the itinerant grandmother who would go from Ghana to Jamaica to the UK to the US to visit all of her grandchildren, telling me stories, connecting textiles and hair, stories, and stitching, there was this wonderful artist by the name of J.D. Ojeikere, who is also now an ancestor. J.D. Ojeikere was photographing women on the West Coast of Africa who were donning these amazing hairstyles as well. When I ran across his book, I realized some of these hairstyles were the hairstyles that I, too, had had as a child. J.D. Ojeikere is one of the people who kept this sentiment in play – that hairstyling is, in fact, not just an art form but a ritual act.

Eshu Elegba is a deity from Yoruba culture, from Nigeria, Benin. Eshu is a messenger who goes between the heaven world and the ancestor world. Eshu is known for having this long, phallic hair that connects him to the ancestors. Living court messengers have a similar hairstyle. You see just that little point on the top of their head, everything shaved but the little antenna that connects them to their ancestors. 


Let’s turn to cloth for a moment, to cloth’s ability to speak. I don’t need to tell this crowd that text and textile are related, from the Latin texere, meaning “to weave.”

When I was getting out of school in the late ’80s, getting my first degree from Amherst College, and going into school at the Art Institute of Chicago, kente cloth was everywhere. It was used as the symbol – a marketing symbol, actually – to say to African Americans, “We would like your money, please. We’ve made this product for you, and we put kente cloth on it.” Knowing it was being used in the American context as a device to get the money out of everybody’s pocket, I thought, ‘What is this cloth actually saying?’

I did some research at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, where I had an internship at the time, and I learned about how this cloth really does speak. The cloth that’s in the center of the main gallery is so filled with proverbs woven into the patterns of the cloth that it is actually referred to as adweneasa, which means “my skill is exhausted.” The weaver’s skill is exhausted. The cloth speaks and speaks and speaks and speaks, and like language and like proverb, the things it speaks can change within its context.

I wanted to dig deeper, and so I went to West Africa, as I am wont to do. I will just get in a plane. You don’t have to ask me twice. The bag is packed. So I went to West Africa to discover more about this cloth. And then when I had the privilege of studying at Cranbrook with the great Gerhardt Knodel, I made a cloth to bring together both Africanness and Americanness.

In my lifetime, people of African descent have been called – these are the nice names, by the way – everything from “Negro,” which my grandmother would say, to “black,” to “Afro-American,” to “African American.” I wanted to make a piece that was attempting to balance Africanness and Americanness. It is also a little bit of a critique about “ ‘American’ means ‘white.’ ” You have to qualify the word “American” with “African” so people know you’re talking about someone of African descent.

I went to 50 women in Detroit and I gave them this cloth that took symbols from the kente cloth that I had learned about, and of course wove it together with the American flag. And I asked these 50 women to tie their heads with a gele or headwrap, and to tell me what they knew about kente cloth and tell me what they knew about the American flag. So in that way, the cloth became a way we could talk about our identity in the context of being American, African Americans, and women.

Just to give you a sense of how these cloths can be read, the stripe pattern is green, red, and black. It’s a symbol that’s called, in the Twi language, babadua, and it refers to healing and resilience. These were the kind of symbols I was weaving into this cloth. For a long time, even before I did that project with the 50 women, I had been thinking about how artwork forms and engages and defines community.

When I decided to pursue art, I picked cloth as a medium because cloth is like DNA. DNA is also like a language written across a span of life, and because cloth is something people have been using for a long time, it absorbs us; it knows something of our humanity. It structures who we are. We have been communicating and designing through cloth, and through crafted mediums with our ancestors for so long that the dialogue is just like that. It’s just like DNA.

Artist Sam Gilliam, who happens to be the father of my best friend, said to me, “Others look to a monument. We look to a piece of cloth.” I take that idea of monumentality to mean enduring, memorable examples of something. So if cloth is like our DNA, let me begin with something of my own heritage. An example of this is Egungun, a masked figure from the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Now, it’s hard for me, like many African Americans, to trace my African heritage. But my father was from Trinidad, my mother from Jamaica. Most Trinidadians who were brought to Trinidad came from the part of West Africa where the Yoruba are most present.

The Egungun is also a celebration, a living quilt, of one’s ancestors, those named and those unnamed. When the Egungun is danced, little strips of cloth wisp by the ears of those who are gathered, and it’s said that the ancestors are whispering to you. Well, that’s a field and a medium I want to be involved in. That’s a beautiful metaphor. I hope to aspire to have that kind of metaphorical power and impact in my work.

Clearly, some Yoruba people made it to Jamaica, and created Pitchy Patchy, the poor man’s version or the enslaved man’s version of the Egungun. Imagine if you were treated as chattel, put in a boat as a commodity, did not manage to die but made it across the Middle Passage. The first thing you would want to do is to celebrate the strength and the resilience of your ancestors and that’s what happened in Jamaica, with Pitchy Patchy. I got to know Pitchy Patchy first and the Egungun later.

Jamaica’s national motto is “Out of many, one people,” which is based on that population’s multiracial roots. My Jamaican mother’s maiden name is McHardy. It’s a family name; it’s not a slave name. My great-grandfather was from Scotland; my great-grandmother, harder to tell where she was from. But she was said to be, at some point, an indentured servant who was from North Africa.

So on my mom’s side of the family, every kind of person is represented, and I wanted to make a cloth that not only spoke about the McHardy tartan, our family cloth and lineage on the Scottish side, but to talk about how the McHardys came to look like me. So I made a cloth from bagasse (sugarcane) fiber, which is what remains once you’ve squeezed out all the sugar, once you’ve taken the stuff that you want.

My cloth is about 15 feet long, and I thought I was going to go around to my diasporic family and take these very formal portraits of each one of them. What actually happened is that one of my aunts became an ancestor earlier last year. With a little bit of fear and trepidation, I took a very small bag and put this 15 yards of cloth in that bag, and I said, OK, a lot of family is going to be gathered; this will be a good opportunity to wrap my family in the McHardy tartan and take these formal portraits.

Best-laid plans. Didn’t happen. I took the cloth out of the bag. My family immediately recognized it as McHardy tartan, but they also realized its materiality wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t made from proper Scottish wool. When I had them guess what it was made out of, they guessed hemp first, and then they went to bagasse, which is a material they are familiar with. There was nothing formal about these portraits I took. What I had done is unwittingly make a family heirloom, a family-owned cloth, a “for us, by us,” a little fubu.

My family totally understood that this cloth was representing who we are and the complexity of our histories. They understood it had to do with the complexity of human trafficking, people as commodities, a global economy in which almost everyone was involved, and yet we refer to this so simply as the “Triangle Trade.” It makes me think about James Baldwin’s sweet but precious poem, Imagination;

“Imagination creates the situation, and, then, the situation creates imagination.

It may, of course, be the other way around: Columbus was discovered by what he found.”

The visceral pull of hair, the pull of heritage, this West African concept of knowing one’s roots, has to do with your ability to be able to name yourself 10 generations back. That’s how they put it: Name yourself 10 generations back. Each one of us is the sums of all those people who have come before us. When I made the piece Rooted and Uprooted, I realized I actually have no problem finding my way to the Highlands of Scotland; I am 12 generations back in Europe – and only six on the African side.

I love my friends who are writers. I often tease them, because they have a way with words and can say things succinctly, and this is not a skill I have. So to quote Isabel Allende, “The image of those trees from the home of my ancestors often comes to mind when I think of my destiny as an expatriate. It is my fate to wander from place to place, and adapt to new soils. I believe I will be able to do that because handfuls of Chilean soil are caught in my roots. I carry them with me always.”


This idea of using textiles, using thread as a placeholder for hairdressing techniques and the presence of African Americans and African presence, is something I was forced to do in 2010. I got angry. I got pissed off. I live in Richmond, Virginia. It is the seat of the Confederacy. In 2010, [then] Virginia governor Bob McDonnell proclaimed April Confederate History Month. I didn’t have a problem with that in and of itself. What I did not like was that he had, in that proclamation, made no mention of the free labor that African Americans provided when we were considered chattel in this country and provided the wealth this nation enjoys.

For that reason, I decided I needed to insert this story in his half-told story. I made an American flag with cornrows, which talked about the land that we worked, and the stars of the American flag in Bantu knots of the Bantu people. To speak of people and to talk about the free labor and the wealth that has built our nation. I didn’t stop there. A few years later, it was the celebration, the sesquicentennial celebration of the end of the Civil War. I wondered what it would look like if we measured, through cloth, really the end of the Civil War. So I made two pieces. I made Unraveled. I took a Confederate flag down to its threads and just reduced it to red, white, and blue.

But that wasn’t enough. I had to actually see what would it feel like to measure this action of how far we’ve actually come. If you want to go farther, you engage people. So I asked people on June 11, 2015, at an opening in Chelsea, at Mixed Greens gallery, to join me in unraveling the cloth, thread by thread, after the opening was done. I had some business in Italy. I got on a plane, flew to Italy, and six days later, while I was in Italy, the Charleston massacre occurred, and suddenly we were talking about the Confederate flag again and its removal and the power of that cloth.

I want to share with you a piece another artist sent to me, not knowing it was a piece, not knowing it was going to be a collaboration. This was an artist who said, “I’ve seen your work with the Confederate flag. I am a European American artist. I’m from the South. And we have these heirloom Confederate flags in my family, and I just don’t want them. Can I send you one from the 1930s? It’s a beautiful linen one.” And he said, “It’s beautiful because it’s old, not because it’s a Confederate flag.” He wanted to make sure I understood his politics. He sent it to me in the hope I might unravel it or do something with it. When he sent it to me, I realized the piece was done, because it lives sort of as a truce between our two racial designations as a European American and an African American. It’s kind of a prayer between two artists – that we will come farther than we’ve already come.

When I was at the Smithsonian doing research, I discovered the cloth we actually should be celebrating. This textile is the Confederate flag of truce. In fact, it’s half of the Confederate flag of truce. It’s one of my favorite pieces of cloth. It’s the cloth that ended the Civil War. It was simply a dishrag, a linen dishrag that was woven in Richmond and found its way to Appomattox. And it is what ended the Civil War. It was a white piece of cloth that Lee picked up and said, “OK, let’s just end this. Enough already.” This cloth got divided in half. Half of the cloth lives in the Smithsonian, and the other half has been cut into little bits and pieces and is all over the South, apparently. So what I’ve decided is to remake that cloth, a cloth that was taken apart that needs to become whole again. As the brilliant artist David Hammons said, “Sometimes I realize that my art is both commentary and oath-taking.” This piece is falling into that category.

Hair also brings us together and pulls as apart, right? The kind of hair we grow separates us into racial designations, separates us into categorizations of who is beautiful and who is not. I am always reminded of the fact that there will be a picture – there’s this picture of Beyoncé, Queen Bey, standing next to her good friend Gwyneth Paltrow, and they both have blond, straight hair. Only one of them grew it.

Cloth is DNA to actual DNA, and this idea of using hair as a medium is certainly not new, as we can see in Victorian hair wreaths. So few pieces I’ve made use hair, my own hair. Hair is a receptacle for our DNA; it’s what holds us together, but it’s also what separates us. Our DNA is really not that different. The person who looks most different from me on the outside, in this audience, might actually be genetically closest to me. Our hair is a receptacle that holds that closeness, but also, the kink and the curl versus the straight is one of the things that separates us. It’s a powerful, powerful, powerful medium.


I started thinking about measuring things. My piece Gold Spool, The Journey, is not an actual thread, and it’s not made out of hair. It is hair-thin. It is made from 18-karat gold and measures, in inches to miles, the length from Cape Coast, Ghana, to Richmond, Virginia, some 5,000-some inches. The ebony wood is from Africa. I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Washington, DC. That neighborhood was referred to as “the Gold Coast” because black people lived there, and we were middle-class – not wealthy, but middle-class. So I have some very specific ties to this piece.

But I was also thinking about fabrication being revealed. This piece took seven people to make it. I had Jeremy Zietz make the wooden spool for me. I had Susie Ganch do some “this-is-how-thin-you-should-have-the-wire-if-you-want-it-to-be-hair-thin.” I had Heath Matysek-Snyder say, “Actually, you should get Jeremy to do that for you.” I had Meg Roberts and Grace Kubilius, my studio assistants, help me spin the wire onto this spool. It takes a village.

Another kind of measurement, though not in length but in number of hairs, is the piece called Skein. I don’t know the woman whose hair it was. I don’t know her. But I did ask one of the hairdressers I worked with if they knew anyone who was cutting their hair from dreadlocks, if they could share those dreadlocks with me.

The hairs on my head number about 80,000. And if you have blond or straight hair or thinner hair, it would be less than that. But the number of hairs on my head is about 80,000. Eighty thousand is also the number of people who were forcibly migrated from Africa to the United States of America and to the Caribbean at height of slavery: the number of hairs on my head, a way of measuring.

So this is the thing. I’ll tell you about my husband, Darryl Harper. He’s the cutest guy I’ve ever met. We’ve been married for 20 years. I still have a crush on him. I hope to have a crush on him for the next 40. That would be convenient. He is a musician, and I’m biased, but he’s a very talented musician. And it took me a very long time, considering I’m married to a musician, to think about putting hair and music together. It was actually this quote by Maya Angelou, that made me think about it. “My hair, a hive of honeybees, is a queenly glory, crackles like castanets, hums like marimbas.” Maya helped me get there.

But Jazz violinist Regina Carter actually made it happen. I re-haired a violin bow with a dreadlock, and then I asked Regina Carter to play Lift Every Voice and Sing, also known as the Negro National Anthem. I like to think that’s what our ancestors sound like. Have you heard them before? It’s a little like that whisper of the Egungun, not nearly as good, but my artistic attempt.


Hair and textiles are related to language; so there should be a fluency between them. So I decided I should go to the native speakers. Using my body as a canvas, I went to hairdressers in Richmond and I asked them to do my hair. That’s not so strange. And then I said, “Here’s this canvas stitched with silk thread. Be a textile artist.” And they said, “What?” And then they did magnificent things. I almost couldn’t make artwork for a little while because they did such magnificent things with those textiles. The Hair Craft Project is one of those things that completely confirms for me the idea that if you bring to light the talent of people who are often not seen, and you do it together, you will go far.

This project was quite successful in Richmond, Virginia, in terms of bringing together many, many communities. And then the project went to Art Prize, the very large public art event, and it became very successful at Art Prize, and so many of the women were very happy about that when I wrote them checks. And then the MFA Boston bought it. And I wrote them another check. And some of the women said, “Oh, we want to be artists.”

And I said, “You all already are artists, and here’s the thing: Your commission work, you get paid immediately. Let me show you my studio storage space of all the artwork that is just sitting there. Don’t give up your day job. You are artists, and you get paid.” So this is a shout and a nod to Jam, Ingrid, Ife, Marsha, Natasha, Jameika, Anita, Kamala, Jasmine, Chaunda, Dionne, and Nasirah.

But I didn’t want to leave the gentlemen out, so one of the things I did was, I have a friend who runs a poetry festival in Miami, and he invites artists to be part of that poetry festival’s mission, which is, in April, to expose everyone in Miami to a poem. He’s a poet, so it’s a really short mission. But it’s very generative, right? Like all of you are thinking, “Everyone? What? How do you do that?” And so of course, there are the people who come and they skywrite their poems, or they write them on the top of buildings that many planes fly over. But he also said it could be small and human scale, and I said, “Small and human scale is perfect for me.”

I’d been working with ladies and hairdressers for so long that I decided to bring together barbershops and literacy. And you know there are a lot of programs happening around this. You’ll find in a lot of cities around our nation [where] little boys or men will get discounts or free haircuts if they read to their barbers.

I don’t have a lot of new ideas, but I like good ones, so I steal them. I did the Haircut for a Poem project in Miami. And this project was inspired by the fact that black men are getting killed in our nation. And the reason they are getting killed in our nation is actually the 13th Amendment. Let me read it to you: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime . . . ” Except as a punishment for a crime. You can’t enslave someone and you can’t make them involuntarily serve you unless there’s a crime. So as soon as the 13th amendment was passed, blackness got criminalized. And this is why we see black men getting killed for doing nothing. I wanted to do something about that. I needed to address it.

The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t new; it’s ongoing. This is just a new chapter of it. I asked the gentlemen to recite this poem [The Distant Drum] by Calvin Hernton that was written in 1976. Calvin Hernton was a professor at Oberlin College and part of the Black Arts Movement. And the poem is: “I am not a metaphor or symbol./ This you hear is [not the wind in the trees./ Nor] a cat being maimed in the street. / It is I who weep, laugh, feel pain or joy./ Speak this because I exist./ [This is my voice]/ These words are my words, my mouth/ Speaks them, my hand writes./ [I am a poet.]/ It is my fist you hear beating/ Against your ear.” Each gentleman who read that poem received a free haircut. They were all on the phone, telling their friends that free haircuts were being given, and it was glorious thing, a glorious day.

This piece of art you see on my head was done last week by Kamala Bhagat, and for the performance I did, called Translations, I asked Kamala to do my hair as I was reading poems written by black women about hair, written in my hair font. And I was basically rendered illiterate. I wanted to see how it felt to learn a language again and to do that publicly.

As the poet Audre Lorde says, “Since Naturally Black is Naturally Beautiful/I must be proud.” And it goes on. The hairstyle I’m wearing here with you, you might see between it the similarities in the very early slide of that little girl who was very proud of the hairstyle she had, the art that she walked with on her head. Hair, thread, and lineage, those ancestral fibers worked into magical sculptures at a young age. In short, this is what happens to a young girl who realizes she herself can be art – if put in the right hands.

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