In works incorporating thread, combs, and other materials, artist Sonya Clark turns a seemingly vain activity like hair braiding into an opportunity to discuss black female identity, representation, and beauty in society. She is one of eight female artists exploring these and other issues in “Brides of Anansi: Fiber and Contemporary Art” at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, which was curated by Lowery Stokes Sims, chief curator of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and Leslie King-Hammond, professor emeritus at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.
Anansi, a cunning half-man, half-spider, is a prominent character in West African and Caribbean folktales. He is known as the god of stories and for using his wit and trickery to outsmart his captors during enslavement. In addition to his intelligence, Anansi uses his small and seemingly vulnerable appearance to his advantage. His “brides,” who include Clark, Junuwa Moja, Xenobia Bailey, Joyce J. Scott, Senga Nengudi, Nnenna Okorem, Adejoke Tugbieyele, and Saya Woolfalk, find ways to tell their own stories, with acrylic yarn, cotton, beads, rhinestones, shells, bones, wire and broken glass.
In Aqua Allure, Clark takes nearly 100 fine-tooth combs and lays them flat so that they appear to be a textured area rug. Linking the plastic instruments with rainbow-colored thread, the piece presents the hair comb as “the first textile art form,” according to Clark. The Caribbean-born, Virginia-based artist draws from memories of getting her hair braided as a child, and uses the piece as a form of self-representation. For her other piece, 3/5, which refers to the law once used to define enslaved blacks as three-fifths a man, Clark takes black fabric and makes three thick braids down a men’s shirt.
Januwa Moja, a wearable art clothing designer, challenges societal norms of beauty with her piece Queen of Spades. Moja, a Baltimore native, emphasizes the beauty in a black figure adorned in an African couture gown of bright colors and geometric patterns. The red-carpet-ready piece is topped off with a towering headpiece bursting with feathers. Fit for a queen, indeed.
In another life-size installation, Paradise Under Reconstruction in the Aesthetic of Funk: Repossessed, Xenobia Bailey, uses crochet to fuse African prints and textures with 1970s funk and psychedelic overtones. Bailey adorns a black doll with a tribal patterned gown, laced with beads, rhinestones, and cowry shells. Rows of cotton dangle from her sides, as if they were freshly picked from the fields that Bailey used to visit with her grandmother.
Human empathy is explored by Saya Woolfolk, a black, white, and Japanese American woman with the Empathics, a group of fictional women whose aim is to become one with all species, plant and animal. Woolfolk sees a society where people are more readily open to embrace each other, despite cultural and racial differences. In a 5-minute multimedia film, The Empathics are colorful figures dressed in kid-friendly costumes made up of handcrafted spandex and other fabrics. The anthropological approach to Woolfolk’s installation addresses how future generations can live together as a society.
Joyce J. Scott uses complex beadwork and sculptures to design figures that explore sociopolitical issues surrounding pop culture, and race and gender discrimination. In Pretty Girl Veiled, she creates a woman adorned in a sparkly beaded gown with splashes of red earth tones. Her face, covered with a silk brown veil, is hardly visible. In SHHHHHH, a wooden figure in a beaded gown is being overtaken by a slithering half-man, half-creature that is wrapped around her. One of its hands covers the woman’s mouth, silencing her voice, for reasons we may never know.
In the same way little Anansi used his wit and talents to triumph over his oppressors, these eight female artists using everyday rituals and common objects to explore sometimes weighty issues. As double minorities in society, these artists tell their stories with the tools most familiar to them. These eight brides are anything but ordinary.
“Brides of Anansi: Fiber and Contemporary Art” is on view at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art through December 6.
Annabella Jean-Laurent is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who blogs at militantbarbie.com. Her writing explores race, media, and gender in society.