Sunday, July 27, 2008

Virtual Studio Visit - Sonya Clark

Sonya Clarke –

I first came across Sonya Clarke's work in the "Pricked" exhibit at the Museum of Art & Design.  In it was her great little piece, "Afro Abe," a five dollar bill with the esteemed president sporting a righteous fro.  The best work on view on Clarke's website, shows the same playfulness and attention to detail.  The website organizes Clark's art by medium, date, and concept.  Jujustring chose concept for this virtual studio visit (although browsing by date gives you a better sense of how the work has developed).

Clark describes the first section, "Hands," as elegies to other craftspeople in her family.  The beaded sculptures "Little Hug," a necklace, and "Golden Touch," tiny gloves made to fit on the fingertips have a great sense of humor.  Other pieces, such as the hand with plant-like roots entitled "Growing" and "Handy," a collection of tiny hands linked to a photograph of human hands, are more poignant. "Fingerprints," images silk screened on cloth, is also very effective and is the only piece in the series that does not involve beads.

None of Clark's work is precious, a criticism often levied against fine craft.  Interestingly, though, her less compelling pieces are often on a larger scale.  It seems as though the bigger the object, the harder the artist seems to be trying, and the more obvious the message becomes. In contrast, with the smaller works not only is her fine workmanship evident, but somehow the link between creativity and message seem more effortless.

 Clark's "Roots/Biology" section references science, history and, of course hair.  Most of the pieces here are not beaded, but instead use wire, cloth, and human hair.  And even when it's not made of hair, much of the work in this section references black hairstyles.  "Two Trees," a half-dome that is both landscape and disembodied scalp is both amusing and slightly disturbing.  The heads of "springy pair," "brown pair," and "black pair" featured in a later section titled "Pairs" are similarly affecting.  Easily moving from sculpture to wearable art, "Roots Necklace Green" and "Hair Necklace" are both beautiful and functional, if you're a bit daring.

Sculptures such as "Synapse" and "Mitosis" are less notable not because they more directly reference science, but because they merely illustrate science, rather than adding the twist or commentary that appears in Clark's other pieces.  A few sculptures that have the depth evident in the artist's best work are:  "Chromosomes," which consists of several dozen assorted beaded Xs and one Y; "Plexus," which is a beaded landscape; and "Dendrite," made of crocheted cotton and copper leaf, and resembling both a sea organism and an outrageous hairstyle. 

 Developing from the hair theme, after the "Roots" section comes "Head," which is broken down into the subsets "Wigs" and "Yoruba."  Unfortunately Clark's wigs are too literal to be very interesting.  The standout here is "Gossiping Hairdressers," in which the open eyes of two large-eyed ceramic heads are connected by a chain of beads.  Similarly, "Wigs" is one of Clark's larger groups of work, and though it is meticulously made, much of it is repetitive – again we see the half scalp with different hairstyles created in thread that first appeared in "Roots/Biology."

The Yoruba section is much more interesting – the shapes are more uncommon, the colors more vibrant, and the materials more varied, from felt, to beads, to velvet, grass, and nails.  While the shapes seem to largely be modeled on actual headdresses (and some will be familiar to those knowledgeable about West African religions), their unusualness in everyday life – and in contemporary fine art – makes them compelling.

 The final thematic section, "Combs," however, is an absolute revelation.  Using plastic black combs, the work recalls Chakaia Booker's use of another humble material to create moving, arresting, and technically outstanding sculpture.  It is hard to single pieces out of this wonderful set, but the curves of "Wavy Strand," and "Waves," are especially compelling.  The viewer doesn't need to read Clark's artist's statement to understand the cultural information and moments these pieces are referencing – or to appreciate the work's beauty.

For some reason the video pieces found under "Medium" do not appear at all under "Concept."  While Clark has been professionally creating art for almost 15 years, these shorts are all from 2003-2005.  They seem to be an exploration of the medium by someone who is more comfortable in the material world.  The videos are pretty straightforward, and are more interesting as part of Clark's evolving oeuvre than as individual works of art.  If she continues working with the moving image, perhaps she can imbue it with the nuances of humor, politics, and skill that her objects employ.

(By the way, if you enjoy Clark's work as much as JJS, don't neglect to check out her very reasonably priced catalogs.)


Virtual Studio Visits are just what they sound like.  They are an opportunity for JJS to examine – in as much depth as the artist's website allows – artists whose work was seen in a gallery, museum, or magazine.  It is also a way for you to interact with JJS – you can see all of the pieces discussed, and leave feedback about whether you agree or disagree with JJS' judgment.  If you know of – or are – an artist that you think JJS should conduct a virtual studio tour of, let JJS know!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Le Sacrilege du Printemps

If you want to see the most rank, the oldest and ugliest stereotypes of Africans, all you must do, evidently, is go to the Joyce Theater.

Heddy Maalem's restaging of Le Sacred du Printemps, choreographed specifically for a group of African dancers, was a bad idea from the beginning.  (If you don't know why Maalem, a (white-skinned) Algerian-Frenchman, is almost always referred to as Algerian, while his (all very dark) Nigerian, Senegalese, Togolese, and other dancers are always referred to as Africans,  you don't know as much about stereotypes as JJS thought!)  JJS almost didn't go to the performance.  But curiosity is a powerful draw.

When Stravinsky's harsh score was first performed in 1913 to Vaslav Nijinsky's risqué (often called – then and now – "primitive") choreography, there was a riot in the theater.  What happened to the good old days when audiences let artists know how they felt?

The piece is a disaster.  While the choreography seems to be trying to tell a story, the narrative is too disjointed to be coherent.  The dancers often are out of sync with each other.  The light and video components are simply distracting rather than adding to the feel or narrative of the dance.  And the costumes – colored underwear and bras – manage to reveal the dancers' bodies without flattering them.

Unfortunately, JJS does not believe in walking out of pieces early.  You know, curiosity is a dangerous thing.


û  û  û

Now, JJS rarely reads other reviews before posting on this blog.  But that rule was broken for this posting, just to make sure JJS didn't miss a flash of brilliance when checking the time left in the piece or looking around to see if the rest of the audience as a whole was similarly horrified.  (For the record, the audience – as a whole – didn't seem to be.)  The reviewers, though, largely concur with what is written above.  See for yourself:  the New York Times review at and the Village Voice review at  But these reviews also shocked JJS because none of them mention race.

A "primitive" dance originally created for and by Europeans is reset specifically for black African dancers – and no one mentions race.  The choreography consists mostly of the dancers either attacking each other or simulating orgies – and no one mentions race?  The choreographer goes so far as to have this dark ensemble repeatedly bare their teeth at the audience while some crawl across the stage – and no one mentions race!

Given the history and prominence of the original piece, given the choreographer's claim that his work is inspired by modern Lagos, and given his admitted fascination with dark-skinned African dancers, the color of the dancers seems, in this instance, to be at least as important as the lighting or the costumes.  If the choreographer can admit that he sees race – and that it is in fact an integral part of his performance – then reviewers should be able to see and discuss it as well.

         JJS is curious as to why race does not appear once in the major reviews of Capmagnie Heddy Maalem's performance.  JJS is curious as to why the Joyce didn't choose to present an African company or choreographer that sees something other than race in black African dancers (such as Germaine Acogny, Faustin Linyekula, or Nora Chipaumire).  And JJS wonders why, if Joyce programmers could not see that this Le Sacred du Printemps is offensive, that they could not at least see that it is just bad dance?

Curiosity, dear reader, is a dangerous thing…