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Word & Image: Sonya Clarke

Artist and chairwoman of craft and material studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.


On her piece "Edifice and Mortar," featured prominently in the new Institute for Contemporary Art opening Saturday, April 21. — as told to Brent Baldwin

So I was in Rome and I was thinking about the idea of empire building. Rome, Italy, and so much of that empire was built on the backs of slaves in the same way that the United States of America's empire was built on those backs as well. I wanted to acknowledge that in multiple ways: First, who are the hands of the people making the bricks, the edifice, the structure? Also tying that to the language of the Declaration of Independence [with the individual words on the bricks]:"We hold these truths to be self-evident."


These are hand-stamped, handmade bricks and the mortar is [made] from a gathering up from local salons of African-American hair, and some of my own hair is in there. So it's what holds the bricks together, not only who made the bricks. Then it's an inverted flag, 13 bricks high. The blue [glass] implies all of us — we are reflected back into the flag. I also think of that blue glass as musical, like the blues as well. I was very particular about what color blue.

But what I'm really happy about is this maker's mark stamp. There's a tradition in ancient Rome of having a maker's mark that showed who made the brick. You knew an enslaved person had made it. They're often crescent shaped, so I turned that into an Afro that says "Schiavo." In Venice, which was one of the major trade and slave ports, the way that word is pronounced is slightly different. … It's where we get "ciao" from. So when we're saying hello and goodbye to one another, we're saying "I'm your slave." And look, when you pull out the word "ciao" [from schiavo], you're left with s h v, which means shareholder value. In the etymology, there's so much tied to this idea of empire and the invisible labor. Also how language lives on our tongue: Rome lives on your tongue unwittingly.

I feel like there is a chorus of voices here [in the Institute for Contemporary Art]. They did a fantastic job.

I work with hair a lot, I think of hair being a stand-in for African-Americans and all of us. Our hair has our DNA, it's recording all the people before us — not just my hair, my mother's, my father. … It's all in there. Ultimately, I find hair a very interesting material because it is both individual, such as how I wear my hair, plus the texture puts us in racial categorizations. But then there's the DNA of my hair: You pluck mine and pluck yours and we're the same. We're the same.

I'm never going to stop using hair. S

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