Madam C.J. Walker lives on at the Blanton

In February of 2017, You Belong Here: Reimagining the Blanton opens at the Blanton. There is so much that we are excited to share in this new presentation of our collection. I’m delighted to introduce some very important recent acquisitions that we will be exhibiting for the first time. Here’s a sneak peek at one of the stars of the installation—that we are still raising funds to be able to purchase—a work I have dreamed about bringing to the Blanton since I arrived here as the curator of modern and contemporary art nearly four years ago.

Sonya Clark, Madam C.J. Walker, 2008, Combs, 10 ft. 2 in. x 7 ft. 3 in. Photo: Taylor Dabney
Sonya Clark, Madam C.J. Walker, 2008, Combs, 10 ft. 2 in. x 7 ft. 3 in.
Photo: Taylor Dabney

This formidable ten-foot portrait by artist Sonya Clark depicts Madam C.J. Walker. Just who was she? Born shortly after the end of slavery, Madam Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) is said to be the nation’s first self-made female millionaire. Orphaned at age seven and widowed with a daughter at twenty, Walker earned fortune and fame by building a prosperous beauty empire, best known for its hair care products. As a businesswoman, she employed thousands of African-American women who would have otherwise been relegated to low-paying jobs.

Madam Walker was also a philanthropist and passionate public speaker. At significant conventions sponsored by major black organizations, she was often the only woman at the podium alongside Booker T. Washington and other black leaders. Walker flourished as an entrepreneur despite the odds, before Women’s Suffrage and long before the Civil Rights Movement. Her life is captured in one of her most famous statements: “I am a woman from the cotton fields of the South. I was promoted to the washtub. I was promoted to the kitchen. I promoted myself to the business of hair…on my own ground.”

1998 U.S. postage stamp, photo: Addison Scurlock
1998 U.S. postage stamp, photo: Addison Scurlock

I first learned about Madam Walker in a history class in college and remember feeling surprised I hadn’t already learned about this trailblazing entrepreneur and social activist. How had the fact that the first self-made female millionaire was an African-American woman escaped me until then? How was she not in the encyclopedias that I devoured in the basement as a kid or in my American history class in high school?

The year I graduated from college, Madam Walker appeared on a postage stamp, in a 1912 photo by African-American photographer Addison Scurlock. An avid letter writer, I still remember buying sheets of the stamps. Ten years later, I came across Sonya Clark’s portrait of Madam Walker in an exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in New York. Clark used the same photo as the basis for her portrait, made entirely out of hair combs.

Sonya Clark’s decision to assemble the portrait out of combs was a powerful choice. As she recently explained to me, “I used 3,840 fine-toothed pocket combs to assemble this image of Walker. Combs speak to Walker’s career as a pioneer of hair care. I also used them because they capture our national legacy of hair culture, and the gender and race politics of hair. As disposable objects, they parallel the low social status of African-American women born in the late 1800s. But together, the thousands of combs become a monumental tapestry, signifying Walker’s magnitude and success despite her humble beginnings.”

Detail of the combs used in Madam CJ Walker artwork
A detail of the combs that make up Sonya Clark’s portrait of Madam C.J. Walker

The first time I saw this work was one of those stop-you-in-your-tracks art experiences: finally, Walker had been commemorated at a scale befitting her larger-than-life accomplishments and in a lasting way. Now, nearly ten years later, I feel so fortunate to have the chance to offer a similar experience to the thousands of visitors who come to the Blanton each year.

Several generous community members have made contributions to the Blanton to help us purchase this work of art so that it can forever be a part of our collection and the story we tell in the galleries. Marilyn Johnson, one of our Blanton National Leadership Board members, beautifully articulates the transformative potential of this work: “I have long been inspired by Madam C.J. Walker’s incredible life as a businesswoman, philanthropist, and activist who empowered so many others to achieve success. Seeing this work for the first time was such a powerful moment for me. Moreover, what I find most moving is that having it on view at the Blanton means that this important woman and her national legacy will be shared with our community—conveying to the public that this museum, and art, is something all of us can enjoy and learn from. I believe this will be a highlight of the Blanton collection.”

And don’t forget to keep an eye out for Madam C.J. Walker on view upstairs at the Blanton beginning in February…you can’t miss it!

Veronica Roberts is the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Blanton.

About the Artist:

Photo: Taylor Dabney
Photo: Taylor Dabney

Sonya Clark was born in 1967 in Washington D.C. to a psychiatrist father from Trinidad and a nurse mother from Jamaica. She is a first-generation American and has drawn extensively upon her Caribbean, Scottish, and African ancestry in her work. Her maternal grandmother, a professional tailor, taught Clark how to sew and helped instill an appreciation for craft and the value of the handmade. Her interest in hair emerged at an early age: “When I was growing up in D.C., my family lived across the street from the Ambassador of Benin and his family of fourteen. They lived in a large mansion and always welcomed us. My sister and I would go over there to play and return home with elaborate hairstyles.”[1]

Clark received her BA in psychology from Amherst College in 1989 and her BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993: “My formal training as an artist began at the Art institute of Chicago with Ann Wilson, Nick Cave, and Joan Livingstone, and cemented the artful connections between hair, craft, and design.” In 1995, she obtained an MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Her work has been exhibited in over 300 museums and galleries throughout the world. She has received many prestigious awards, residencies, and fellowships including a Pollock-Krasner Award, a Rockefeller Foundation Residency in Italy, a Red Gate Residency in China, a Wisconsin Art Board Fellowship, and a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, and, most recently, she received the two awards at ArtPrize 2014. Currently, she is the chair of the Department of Craft/Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond.

[1] http://www.charlestoncitypaper.com/CultureShock/archives/2014/09/04/1858-prize-profile-sonya-clark

One thought on “Madam C.J. Walker lives on at the Blanton

  1. Thank you for sharing the stories associated with the artwork , the artist and your personal discovery of the piece and it’s subject. Looking forward to seeing it in person. Hope you have an enormous community celebration and that the artist attends.
    Will donate toward the purchase as soon as my budget recovers from supporting Bernie and Jill!!

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