The first time I met Sonya Clark she helped me move a 300-pound cast-bronze bench down a steep flight of stairs.
Well, maybe there’s more to the story. In summer 2015 Sonya and Emily Zilber, former Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts at the MFA, were visiting me at the Society of Arts and Crafts, where I used to work as a curator. I was deinstalling an exhibition of contemporary furniture, and I imagine Sonya and Emily were preparing for “Crafted: Objects in Flux,” which opened at the MFA that August. The gallery was full of commotion that day. Artist Vivian Beer was there with her assistant to pick up work. Tess Lukey, then my intern and now the MFA’s Luce Curatorial Research Associate, was helping close down the exhibition. In a true testament to the strength of women working together, the six of us managed to slowly, surely, and safely maneuver Vivian’s Suspended Landscape bench down a narrow staircase and into her waiting van. I share this story as one of togetherness, not just an example of “many hands make light work” but the interconnectedness of networks—collegial, communal, friendly, familial—that mark my understanding of Sonya’s work.
Later that summer I saw The Hair Craft Project in “Crafted” and witnessed how, as an artist, Sonya literally wove relationships into her portraits with hairdressers. These photos show Sonya from the back, her hair elaborately braided into beautiful patterns and designs. Facing her, and the viewer, are the hairdressers—the artists—who created Sonya’s hairstyles. Sonya believes “hairdressing is the first art made of fiber,” and I agree. The Hair Craft Project is more than portraiture and fiber art—it’s people woven together, a textile in itself braiding women’s shared knowledge and labor, history, tradition, culture, and togetherness. Sonya recreated these hairstyles in silk, threaded through canvas, in complementary artworks, further anchoring the metaphor of hair as fiber art.
Now the photographs and canvases that make up The Hair Craft Project are on view again, in “Women Take the Floor.” When we show Sonya’s work at the MFA, we do more than spotlight Black women’s hair as an art form. We emphasize the immense contributions Black artists have in the fabric of American culture and how their art expands the ways we can tell stories in our galleries. As museums look to diversify our permanent collections (I use the collective first-person to emphasize shared responsibility), we can impart values through our displays. Museums have enormous cultural cachet as the most trusted source of information in America, and the more we collect and exhibit works made by artists who reflect the growing demographics of BIPOC Americans and immigrants who live here, the better we serve our visitors, who look to our exhibitions to understand the past and inspire the future.
I imagine that Sonya and I, both children of immigrants, shared similar moments in childhood and adolescence, sitting in front of our mothers for hours at a time while our hair was styled. Mine was blow-dried, flat ironed, and doobie wrapped so I could go to school looking good for my peers and teachers. Acknowledging our different ethnicities, skin colors, hair textures, and lived experiences, the way we managed our hair was important in how the world perceived us—and it still is. For me, growing up Latina in Kentucky, it was about assimilation. Now, with my hair curly and free, it’s a celebration.
Last month, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, along with her colleagues in the House of Representatives, reintroduced the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act, a bill to ban race-based hair discrimination. This bill protects one’s right to wear their hair in a way that represents their whole identity in a moment when society and culture continue to police Black bodies, jobs are precious and perilous, and BIPOC people around the country don’t feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work.
So it’s awesome to see The Hair Craft Project at the MFA, just as it’s moving for me to see the city I was born in, São Paolo, Brazil, represented in the exhibition “Black Histories, Black Future,” and to write and read labels for the Art of the Americas Wing in Portuguese, my first language. The MFA can be a venue to celebrate the pluralities of American experiences. It is so powerful when we make that commitment—and deliver on it.
I saw Sonya again in September 2020, at the opening for “Women Take the Floor.” We caught up on journeys taken since we last moved heavy art down perilous stairs. She is back in Massachusetts, now a professor at Amherst College. I am now fundraising rather than curating, performing a role that bridges resources to MFA activities—including exhibitions and acquisitions. Still, we are connected by the power of art, a fabric made stronger as more fibers braid others to us, interweaving stories and experiences within galleries and beyond.