Sounding the Ancestors: Hair, DNA, and Music

6.3 / Dimensions: Expanded Measures of Textiles

Sounding the Ancestors: Hair, DNA, and Music

By Sonya Clark February 26, 2015

For decades I have used hair as a readymade portrait, a stand-in for the individual or even the collective. Hair is a medium that simultaneously sings our individuality and marks our ancestral connections and collective identities. Hair holds DNA; it maps the essence of one’s identity. It took me a while to connect hair, identity, and music—a long time, considering I have been married for eighteen years to a jazz musician.My recent work explores the timbre of music played on a violin with bows made of different types of human hair. It is a different way of feeling the music.

Sonya Clark. Abacus, 2010; wood, human hair and metal; 5 x 5 x 0.5 inches. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Taylor Dabney.

A precursor to this project was my 2010 work, Abacus, in which my hair formed the beads of the titular object. Using my hair wasn’t about representing myself; rather, its texture and DNA are stand-ins, a synecdoche of sorts, for all African Americans. For the abacus—like many beaded objects used as mnemonic devices, such as prayer beads—the sense of touch is key to functionality. I made soft, felted hairballs but wanted them to produce the clicking sound that is also central to the function of abacuses; the clicking helps the person to count through another sense. I set metal cores into the hairy beads so they would convey the sounds of a typical abacus. Also, just as hair growth measures time, I wanted to measure time with Abacus. I used still images of the piece showing year numbers in a stop-motion video called Counting Change (begun in 2011) to measure the time from 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, to the present. Every year, I add a new image to the video. I employed the stop-motion rhythm as a substitute for the clicking sound, counting year after year, but I wasn’t satisfied. I needed to add a strong voice, singing about the history of race in this nation: I picked a recording of Nina Simone singing “Old Jim Crow.”

Sonya Clark. Counting Change, 2014; stop-action video. Courtesy of the Artist.

Simple questions drive my work. Creating Abacus and Counting Change led me to ask, “What does hair sound like?” I then made what now seems an obvious decision: to restring violin bows not with horsehair but with human hair, a material that might offer us the potential to hear the voices of our ancestors as held in our DNA. To restring one bow, I bought thirty-inch-long, straight, blonde hair extensions. I re-haired a second with one of my own dreadlocks. While talking with my musician husband, I learned that the word timbre means the color of a tone. In musical terms, we use timbre to differentiate sounds—for example, of an oboe versus a violin or the sounds of one soprano versus another. Musicians use the words timbre or color to describe individual sounds; in music, texture is the overall sound quality of a composition. But in my re-haired bows, I use color and texture differently and bring them together: color as in race and texture as in hair texture, which is often used to define race.

Sonya Clark. Hair Bows, 2014; blonde hair, artist's hair (off body dreadlock), violin bows. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Taylor Dabney. 

At the time, my husband was working on an album, and our good friend Regina Carter, a jazz violinist and an African American woman, was to participate in a recording session.2 I had asked her to record songs that speak to collective identity, and I had thought about what songs might fit this bill. While we all have several collective identities (generational, cultural, and so forth), I went straight to the music that conveys an obvious one: American anthems. She played the United States National Anthem (“The Star-Spangled Banner”) and the Black American National Anthem (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”) with both of the re-haired bows. Though making sound with these human-hair bows is difficult, she made them sing. Through her craft, she brought the DNA of our ancestors to life, connecting sound and body. We hear their voices, hauntingly singing of challenges in our history and our present.

Excerpt of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played by violinist Regina Carter with a violin bow re-haired by Sonya Clark with a dreadlock, 2014. Courtesy of the Artist.
Excerpt of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played by violinist Regina Carter with a violin bow re-haired by Sonya Clark with blonde hair, 2014. Courtesy of the Artist.

Oh say, can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
Oe’r the land of the free and the home of the brave?

                                                                                      Francis Scott Key, 1814

Lift every voice and sing
’Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty.
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. 
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.

                                                                                    James Weldon Johnson, 1900


  1. Specifically, to the clarinetist Darryl Harper, who has been profiled by National Public Radio
  2. Regina Carter is a MacArthur fellow.

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