There are many materials artists can choose to make into a portrait, but for artist Sonya Clark, the portrait of Madam CJ Walker could only come to life through one very ordinary object — the comb. When visitors walk into the Craft and Folk Art Museum, they will encounter a towering, shimmering collection of combs that form the face of Walker, the first independent female millionaire, who made her fortune in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from hair products.

Walker also created products especially for African American women and eventually opened her own cosmetology school. Clark's portrait sums that up quickly in the black combs, which double up in some places to give the figure her distinctive features.

Clark's current show “Sonya Clark: Material Reflex” creates a number of similar portraits, forming a clear picture of Clark's heritage at a both personal and collective level. Of African-American, Scottish and Caribbean descent, Clark touches on everything from societal notions of beauty to slavery. She received training as a textile artist and the show contains work from a range of years tied together by her use of hair, or thread made to look like hair.

In Rooted and Uprooted (photo above), one set of threads is strung vertically between two horizontal white canvases while another hangs freely from a single canvas without any base. The piece cleverly communicates the fact that Clark can't trace her African descent because of slavery but can look back at her European ancestry. The material looks like thread but its shape and the way it enters the canvas feels like the roots of a tree or the individual strands of hair on a scalp. Their taut position hints at struggle, as if the threads can't be stretched any further. Aesthetically it's an interesting piece to the eye, and within context it becomes so much more.

Afro Abe II; Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Afro Abe II; Credit: Courtesy of the artist

All that serious probing of history is not to say Clark doesn't possess a sense of humor. Afro Abe II shows a worn five-dollar bill with a full afro made of thread on Abraham Lincoln's head. The piece points out Lincoln's history with slavery and the idea that the move to free slaves probably came somewhat because of economic advantages.

Yet the sight of Lincoln's stern face coupled with an afro makes for such a disparate image that it, along with the moniker “Afro Abe,” lends a lighthearted mood. The majority of Clark's pieces communicate their messages powerfully and more straightforwardly, but Afro Abe catches the viewers' attention before fully conveying its complicated meaning, instead of displaying it front and center. That gives viewers a breath from the other more obviously dark but equally thoughtful pieces in the show.

Abacus 1863, made of wood, human hair and metal (2010); Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Abacus 1863, made of wood, human hair and metal (2010); Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Many pieces address stark truths about race relations, but what separates this show from others with similar themes is Clark's willingness to literally give the viewers parts of herself. Abacus 1863 takes its name from the year the Emancipation Proclamation got signed. Instead of abacus beads, Clark places her own hair in circular shapes around the wooden abacus sticks. The piece points to the passage of time as it counts the years from 1863 to now. So simply, the artist points at her own personal heritage while recalling a collective history.

After Clark's exhibit, these materials don't seem completely ordinary any more, as they form works of art that seem crafted by an expert storyteller.

“Sonya Clark: Material Reflex” runs until September 8. CAFAM is located on 5814 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-Wilshire.

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