In 2014 Kara Walker presented A Subtlety, also known as the Marvelous Sugar Baby, at the Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was a monumental sculpture of a Black woman in a leonine crouch, naked except for a scarf wrapping her hair. Walker describes the work as “an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World.”
Two years prior to this, twenty-five-year-old Allana Clarke made Performing Histories: Sugar, a performance for video in which she sits stark naked against a black backdrop and licks sugar off her breasts. The absurdist work, like Walker’s, speaks to a history of colonialism, sugar plantations, and consumption. But where Walker’s sphinxlike sculpture orients its audience toward the past, Clarke’s performance confronts the present. The artist centers herself as a descendant of those who labored for sugar, living with the aftermath of their history. What happens when she, as a Black woman, is not being consumed, but rather is the one consuming? This question is arguably the anchor point for much of Clarke’s art, which includes video, photography, and sculpture. When Black women grapple with history, it’s often through the prism of things being done to us: rape, exploitation, captivity, murder. Clarke subverts this. She examines the positions of the agent and the recipient, and doesn’t hesitate to reverse them.
Born in Trinidad and raised in New York, Clarke always had an interest in street photography. She studied photography at New Jersey City University, and visited Chelsea galleries on class trips. The work she saw in these places seemed too “conceptual” and “insular.” After graduating, she reexamined her chosen medium: “I began to feel uncomfortable with this notion of me, a person with agency, going out into the world and capturing the images of others,” Clarke said in an interview. “Even the language of photography is predatory. There were so many problems [with it] that I had to do something else.” She subsequently studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, earned an interdisciplinary MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art, and taught at Wayne State University in Michigan and Williams College in Massachusetts.
Clarke’s recent work focuses on troubling norms and practices she encountered in her youth, exposing their broader social ramifications. Some of these traumatic memories are associated with hair. As a girl, she felt pressured by her family and peers to assimilate by using hair bonding glue to secure weaves and extensions. Hair care is a minefield for Black women and girls. Today, Clarke asks what hair bonding glue can be when it’s not pulling her away from notions of Black beauty. She “performs with the material” by stretching and manipulating the glue until it thickens into a leathery skin. On her webcam, Clarke showed me her working space in New Haven, where she has a yearlong fellowship at NXTHVN, a residency program founded by artist Titus Kaphar. She stores thousands of bottles of hair bonding glue in large boxes. On Instagram, Clarke posts short clips of her fingers and toes intuitively shaping grooves into the glue skins, while the music of Sampha, Solange, and Erykah Badu plays in the background. “I went through a very long process of experimenting with the material to understand what it does and what I can make it do, and what type of conversation we can have together,” Clarke said. She takes what has signified harm to her and plays around with its physical properties to satisfy her curiosity.
Clarke has also adopted cocoa butter as a sculptural material, seeing it as a part of her early “ritualistic indoctrination” into white-influenced beauty standards. For “Relative Semblance,” her 2019 exhibition at the Women’s Darkroom + Gallery in Brooklyn, she cast cocoa butter into letters reading: “Meh muddah teach me to hate blackness in myself & in others.” Set against a chocolate-covered wall, the statement was a brash yet somber reminder of how internalized racism is passed from one generation to another.
Clarke considers each interaction with cocoa butter and bonding glue an “energy transfer” in which she releases the object from the “burden of expectation.” Her process creates a space where she can engage her chosen material in an intimate dialogue without any pressure to conform to hegemonic standards. Now these materials can be used for healing instead of trauma. Her work explores the exciting terrain that opens up when the oppressed speak back to history.
This article appears in the May/June 2021 issue, pp. 94–95.