The Art

Triad

Is this object made from real hair? Is it a hat? Is it part of a costume? Who might wear it? Since it is three-dimensional and is located in an art museum, is it a sculpture? At first glance, Triad seems familiar and appealing, even functional. It is a cap made of cloth covered with black crochet threads, and it looks very much like a scalp with a real hairstyle. The threads are parted and twisted into three braids that spill over the sides of the cap, producing a neat and jaunty design that could be the handiwork of a caring mother for her daughter. However, it is a work of art that is part of a group of similar objects in a set called The Wig Series. They are exhibited together in the museum galleries on a pedestal, under a Plexiglas cover called a vitrine. The Wig Series was made by Sonya Clark, who is a textile artist and works with cloth and thread to make sculptures.

Triad is not meant to be worn. It is an artwork that emerges from Clark’s fascination with artistic traditions in Africa, in which symbolic designs are used in weaving, headwrapping and hats, basketry, and other decorative and household crafts. Clark is inspired by the handiwork of women whose designs indicate African beliefs about the location of the soul and self in the head, as well as about the power and guidance of ancestral spirits. By using cloth and thread rather than traditional sculptural materials like wood, stone, and metal, Clark draws attention to artistic methods and media traditionally employed by women. Her headpieces also link African traditions with African American hairstyling traditions in the United States. A young black American girl might wear her hair braided into decorative and sculptural designs similar to Triad, and in fact, Sonya Clark did wear this style as a child. She remembers relatives and neighbors creating “sculpture with my hair.”

Triad is third in the set of sculptures that comprise the Wig Series. In each piece, the threads on a cap are divided into a specific number of sections that follow a mathematical numbering pattern. The system is called the Fibonacci Sequence, in which each succeeding number is the sum of the two preceding it (0,1,1,2,3,5,8, etc.). Using this mathematical progression as a starting point, Clark created the sequence of hairstyles using increasing numbers of thread sections. Other pieces in the series are called Unum, Hemi, Fingers, and Spider. Clark learned of this system from the writings of Ron Eglash, a science and technology professor who has studied the pervasiveness of fractals, or geometric shapes that contain reduced-size copies within the whole, throughout African architecture, art, games, religion, and symbolic systems.

According to Clark, the three-part shape of Triad relates to other symbolism about threesomes, including the Christian religious belief in God, Christ, and Holy Spirit that is a strong foundation for many African American communities. The shape also signifies for Clark the evolution of traditions—which emerge from the past, continue in the present, and evolve into the future.

The Artist

Sonya Clark was born and raised in Washington, DC. Her parents had come to the United States from the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and Trinidad and were of West African ancestry. She remembers the important influences of her Jamaican grandmother, nicknamed “Chummy,” who was a professional tailor and taught her to sew, as well as of other relatives whose storytelling helped shape her identity. “When I sat between the knees of an aunt, mother, grandmother, or other woman who was doing my hair as a child, inevitably storytelling would begin. Those stories might be about how to behave or about family history. It seemed as if the stories themselves were being braided into my hair. My hair itself held the DNA of my forebears and that of the generations yet to come. And, as my hair was being done, I was absorbing the oral histories of my family.”

Clark earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology at Amherst College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in textile art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a Master of Fine Arts degree at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. She traveled to West Africa to “understand what cloth meant” and learned about the uses of strip woven cloth in which proverbs and ideas “can literally be read” from their patterns. She specifically studied the Yoruba culture of Nigeria, to which she traces her own heritage, and this led her to recognize the importance to identity of the head and hair. “Among the Yoruba there is a sense that the soul is centered in your head,” she has said. She is especially interested in how hair wrapping has the effect of making the head appear larger than life. In West African art the head forms approximately one-fourth the height of the body, symbolizing its relative value. Clark’s work combines her knowledge about rituals of hair- and head-dressing with her studies of psychology and identity.

After her return to the United States, Clark’s turn from textiles to the possibilities of hairstyling seemed natural enough, as “the first textile art form was hairstyling.” She currently makes art in a variety of forms, including sculpture, beadwork, photography, and video. She is interested in the tools used to groom and adorn the body, and she has used combs, beadwork, and jewelry in her sculptures. She created a large and imposing portrait of Madam C.J. Walker, the first African American woman to become a millionaire, out of hundreds of ordinary black hair combs.

Sonya Clark previously was a member of the faculty of the Art Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently professor of art and the history of art at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Key Ideas

  • Art that expresses African and African American cultural and gender traditions
  • Sculpture made from fiber and thread
  • Hair and head as symbols of beauty, power, and spirit

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some traditions of dressing or body ornamentation that are observed in your family?
  2. In your mind, picture the headpiece Triad as one of a series of similar headpieces based on mathematical sequence of numbers called the Fibonacci series. How do you think the other ones might look?
  3. Imagine your hairstyle is to be used as a design for a sculpture. What materials would you suggest using to make the sculpture? What colors and textures would you want included?

Vocabulary

  • braiding plaiting or interlacing of three or more strands

  • crochet needlework consisting of the interlocking of looped stitches formed with a single thread and a hooked needle

  • culture the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group

  • Fibonacci number a number in the infinite series of which the first two terms are 0 and 1 and each succeeding term is the sum of the two immediately preceding

  • pedestal an upright, vertical structure that is used to support a sculpture or other object

  • textile woven or knit cloth

  • vitrine a glass or Plexiglas case or cabinet used to display objects or specimens

  • Yoruba West African people living chiefly in southwestern Nigeria