In her collaborative performance piece Unraveling, Professor of Art and the History of Art Sonya Clark ’89 asks viewers to help pull apart a Confederate flag. In Twist, she fashioned an alphabet based on the curl pattern of her own hair. And now, this renowned artist is inviting the Amherst community to ponder solidarity and community through the Solidarity Book Project. Commissioned by the College for its Bicentennial, this project also honors the five-year anniversary of the Amherst Uprising and the 50th anniversary of the Black Studies department. You can find out how to participate on the project website. And you can learn a bit more about Clark and the project’s origins and aims right here.
What was your inspiration for the Solidarity Book Project?
I was asked if I’d consider doing something for the Bicentennial, and I said let me think about it. I was on leave, at the American Academy in Rome, and a publisher friend there gave me a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written in Italian. Now I don’t speak Italian. I am never going to read this book in Italian. I thought, “This is going to become an art project.” I had altered books before. In my work “Being invisible and without substance,” I punched multiple holes in a copy of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. And I decided to turn this copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X into a solidarity fist and give it as a birthday gift to another Italian publisher friend, to honor books, our friendship and the work he does as a white man to elevate the work of a lot of writers of color. The solidarity fist is a symbol about fighting against oppression. There’s the power of many of these solidarity fists coming together.
How does the solidarity fist play into Amherst’s Bicentennial?
My beloved alma mater has done a lot of work. In terms of the student body, Amherst is a completely different, more enriched and beautiful space than when I was a student. The work of solidarity can extend to so many places, but if I’m going to start as a Black person and talk about solidarity, then I also need to say who else I am in solidarity with, and that means starting with how our Indigenous brothers and sisters were first robbed of rights and land and sovereignty, and on whose land Amherst College sits. Then to ask other people who might not be Black or Indigenous: how are you also extending solidarity to these communities?
How would you place the Solidary Book Project in the context of your art in general?
It hits a number of pulses. One is that I’m really interested in craft based-mediums, in practices that sometimes get denigrated in a false hierarchical notion of what is art and what is not art. I was trained as a textile artist, right? Textiles is a medium that people know with their bodies. You are wearing textiles now. I am wearing textiles now. People are also familiar with books. Here is a very common object that has such capacity to hold so much of who we are, and to shape who we might become. And that parallels very much with what I do working with textiles or working with hair, unpacking how powerful those familiar things might be.
What was it like for you to craft a solidarity fist within a book of your choice?
I’ve got pretty smart brains on the ends of my fingers, so altering a book with the solidarity fist will take me a shorter amount of time than most. (I did one in four hours). For other people, it’s going to be on the slower end, it might take as long as it would take you to read the book. There is something about slowness I’m interested in. The communing with materials, the slowing us down enough to consider what is actually happening, thinking about this book that has filled you with knowledge or made you question things differently. Just as solidarity work itself is slow and intentional work. Slowness helps in the learning.
How has your Amherst undergrad experience influenced your art?
While I wasn’t an art major at Amherst [she majored in psychology], the way that I think through art is very much rooted in the liberal arts education. When I went to art school, I felt like I was doing something a little different from those who always knew that they were going to go to art school.
And how does teaching at the College now speak to this project?
As an Amherst alum, it means a lot to me to start this project here, where I started my thinking about being the artist and teacher that I am, right? It’s about the complexity of community. There is not one Amherst; there are many Amhersts. How do we wrap our arms around all that Amherst is at its best? How do we call out the things that are not Amherst’s best and make sure we don’t replicate those things, but learn from those things? To learn ways to make Amherst better—that is in fact an act of solidarity.