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Moses Myers House

323 E. Freemason St.
Open Saturday and Sunday

Noon–5 p.m.

Jean Outland Chrysler Library

Reading Room
Currently closed

About the Myers House

The oldest Jewish home in America open to the public as a museum offers a glimpse of the life of an early 19th century merchant family.
More about the house

About the Library

With an extensive collection of more than 106,000 rare and unique volumes relating to the history of art, the Jean Outland Chrysler Art Library is one of the most significant art libraries in the South. More about the library

Located in Norfolk

One Memorial Place,
Norfolk, VA
Get Directions

While You're Here

Visit our Museum Shop
and the Wisteria Cafe.

Perry Glass Studio

A state-of-art facility on the Museum’s campus. See a free glassmaking demo Tuesdays–Sunday at noon. Like what you see? Take a class with us! More about the Studio

Moses Myers House

The home of the first permanent Jewish residents of Norfolk, this historic house offers a glimpse of the life of a wealthy early 19th-century merchant family.
More about the house

Jean Outland Chrysler Library

With an extensive collection of more than 106,000 rare and unique volumes relating to the history of art, the Jean Outland Chrysler Library is one of the most significant art libraries in the South. More about the Library

Wedding & Event Rentals

The perfect place for your big day or special event. Get the details

In-person Tours

Group tours are available for groups of 20 or fewer. More about tours

Jean Outland Chrysler Library

Visit one of the most significant art libraries in the South. More about the library

About the Chrysler

Our story spans well over 100 years. See where we began, how we grew, and where we're going. Explore our history

News and Announcements

See what's happening at the Museum, read Chrysler Magazine, and find our Media Center. Read now

Location

745 Duke Street
Norfolk, VA 23510
757-333-6299

Always Free Parking

Get Directions

Third Thursdays

Live art performances monthly.
See the archive

Studio Team

Meet the brilliant minds behind the Studio.
See the team

Visiting Artist Series

Bringing the world’s top glass art talent to Hampton Roads
Find out more

Give the Chrysler Experience

Share everything you love about the Chrysler Museum with a gift membership. Perfect for everyone on your list.

The Masterpiece Society

Learn about this innovative group of museum supporters.
Meet the Masterpiece Society

Planned Giving

Help ensure the long-term success of the Museum.
Learn about planned giving

Moses Myers House

323 E. Freemason St.
Open Saturday and Sunday

Noon–5 p.m.

Jean Outland Chrysler Library

Reading Room
Currently closed

About the Myers House

The oldest Jewish home in America open to the public as a museum offers a glimpse of the life of an early 19th century merchant family.
More about the house

About the Library

With an extensive collection of more than 106,000 rare and unique volumes relating to the history of art, the Jean Outland Chrysler Art Library is one of the most significant art libraries in the South. More about the library

Located in Norfolk

One Memorial Place,
Norfolk, VA
Get Directions

While You're Here

Visit our Museum Shop
and the Wisteria Cafe.

Perry Glass Studio

A state-of-art facility on the Museum’s campus. See a free glassmaking demo Tuesdays–Sunday at noon. Like what you see? Take a class with us! More about the Studio

Moses Myers House

The home of the first permanent Jewish residents of Norfolk, this historic house offers a glimpse of the life of a wealthy early 19th-century merchant family.
More about the house

Jean Outland Chrysler Library

With an extensive collection of more than 106,000 rare and unique volumes relating to the history of art, the Jean Outland Chrysler Library is one of the most significant art libraries in the South. More about the Library

Wedding & Event Rentals

The perfect place for your big day or special event. Get the details

In-person Tours

Group tours are available for groups of 20 or fewer. More about tours

Jean Outland Chrysler Library

Visit one of the most significant art libraries in the South. More about the library

About the Chrysler

Our story spans well over 100 years. See where we began, how we grew, and where we're going. Explore our history

News and Announcements

See what's happening at the Museum, read Chrysler Magazine, and find our Media Center. Read now

Location

745 Duke Street
Norfolk, VA 23510
757-333-6299

Always Free Parking

Get Directions

Third Thursdays

Live art performances monthly.
See the archive

Studio Team

Meet the brilliant minds behind the Studio.
See the team

Visiting Artist Series

Bringing the world’s top glass art talent to Hampton Roads
Find out more

Give the Chrysler Experience

Share everything you love about the Chrysler Museum with a gift membership. Perfect for everyone on your list.

The Masterpiece Society

Learn about this innovative group of museum supporters.
Meet the Masterpiece Society

Planned Giving

Help ensure the long-term success of the Museum.
Learn about planned giving

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August 20, 2020

Object of the Week: Sonya Clark’s Octoroon

This year, the Chrysler added Sonya Clark’s Octoroon to the permanent collection. Not only does the purchase enhance the Museum’s holdings of fiber works, but it also helps meet the Chrysler’s goal of acquiring more pieces by local and regional artists. Clark is from Washington, D.C. and lived in Richmond, Virginia, where she was the Chair of Craft/Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University until 2017. She is now on the faculty of Amherst College.

The title of the work, Octoroon, refers to the legacy of the U.S. racial classification system in the nineteenth century under Jim Crow laws. The laws stated that any individual who had one African American great-grandfather was classified as African American, no matter how that individual looked. The artist has one Scottish great-grandmother but would have never been considered Scottish as the reverse racial classifications did not exist. In the twentieth century, the definition of an octoroon was solidified into law in certain southern states as the “one-drop” rule. Thus, an octoroon was one-eighth African American. Clark’s work is gridded into eighths, giving a physical manifestation of this societal law.

Sonya Clark (American, b. 1967), Octoroon, 2018, Canvas and thread, Chrysler Museum of Art, 2020.4, Image courtesy of the artist and Lisa Sette Gallery

Octoroon is Clark’s depiction of the United States flag. She stitched the bare canvas with threads and braided a section in a cornrows style while leaving other threads hanging loose off the canvas. The seven-by-three-foot work is a large piece that hangs vertically. It is relatively close to one of the standard dimensions of the U.S. flag, which is six-by-ten feet, albeit thinner.

Octoroon, a term now considered antiquated and discriminatory, was also affiliated with a genre of books and plays within pre-Civil War fiction. The “tragic octoroon” was traditionally depicted as a young female raised by her Caucasian father, unaware that she was an enslaved person because of her light skin color and European features. Her world perception would shift when, at her father’s death, she was sold as property. She usually died by suicide or other heartrending means. The character was a trope used by abolitionists in their fight against slavery.

Clark interweaves the legacy of craft, American history, and race to develop mixed media works that celebrate blackness and womanhood and address past and present racial tensions within society. She developed an appreciation for handmade objects and the importance of craft traditions within art from her maternal grandmother, who was a tailor. Because objects are embedded with meaning and history, the artist believes they hold power that can be presented or rethought once those items become a part of an artwork.

Sonya Clark, Photograph by Diego Valdez

Clark’s practice involves referencing personal histories, including her own. She uses fiber to draw attention to her hair, highlighting how African American women’s hair has been and continues to be a sociopolitical issue. By incorporating cornrow braids into the work, she suggests how certain styles are linked to human labor (i.e rows of corn/cornrows). In addition, certain styles such as cornrows are not considered “tidy” or “professional” because they don’t align with Eurocentric notions of beauty yet are often appropriated by non-black communities. Schools and businesses have been able to ban students or not hire individuals because of their hairstyles. However, there are small signs of changing perceptions. In 2019, several cities and states passed laws banning any discrimination towards African American hairstyles.

The artist’s images also address the role of women’s hair in various communities more broadly, as certain hairstyles signified a girl’s transition into womanhood and marriageability. Cutting the hair short was used to humiliate women who did not conform. Hair is formidable as a distinguishing feature and a way to represent oneself to the world.

Octoroon continues Clark’s interest in hair politics, though she uses thread instead of real or fake hair. The artwork blends American history with contemporary society. The Chrysler is thrilled to add Clark’s work to the growing collection of fiber works in the collection by artists Ebony Patterson, Faig Ahmed, Alexander Calder, Sophie Arp, and Loretta Pettway. Her work also adds to the increasing number of women and artists of color in the permanent collection.

-Kimberli Gant, PhD, McKinnon Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art

From the Collection