Artist Sonya Clark responded to two works in the Tang Teaching Museum collection—an African hat and an ambrotype of an African American girl—by creating a new sculpture based on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952).
“Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through?”
— Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 1952
Have you seen those pinhole eyeglasses, the ones that look like shades but have opaque plastic lenses perforated with tiny holes? The little holes are intended to help you see. I remember my mother bought a pair. I thought they were silly but then they worked. Somehow those little apertures helped to focus the eyes. They obscured and focused simultaneously.
This African hat, hand-stitched with its tiny eyelet holes, brought those pinhole glasses to mind. The surface of the white cotton was wounded with each puncture, the space marked with a masterful encirclement of silk thread over and over again. What unnamed artist wielded a needle with such grace and embodied knowledge? And if the head for which the hat was intended was an eye covered with this beautifully embroidered hat, it, too, would have sharper focus.
And then there is that particular precious child, winked at by the camera. A mechanical pupil captured a moment in light and lens of someone anonymous to us. An ambrotype, an immortal impression, made possible by one precise occasion of looking through one singular oculus. It is a tiny image of a tiny child but somehow also monumental, formidable, a flash of wholeness or fullness in a blinding era of negation and emptiness.
How do I see these two objects? I see that in their anonymity and preservation there is a knowing of unknowing. Whether with the shutter of a lens or the repetitive piercing of a needle, there is evidence through orifices. Blinking eyes and steady stares make visible the invisible. When looking through, something larger emerges. The holes make a new kind of emergence and awareness. We feel what is lost. Endless oculi penetrate, perforate, and demonstrate in the substrate what we would not otherwise see. The periphery illuminates the absence.
Each of my manipulated pages are rendered as a porous membrane of illegible text.
A book of skins without a body. Pages and layers of dermis become a body. We breathe though our breath is taken. Aerated by an act of emptying, our lungs filled to capacity.
Disruption shifts to oxygenation. Like spores, what is removed, what is undone, generates nonetheless. Absence made present like alveoli exhaling the story, the seeds of the tempest bear witness to struggle and strength.