There was a palpable excitement for artist Allana Clarke’s talk at Kavi Gupta gallery during EXPO Chicago. On an unusually warm Saturday, collectors, fans, friends and artists gathered to hear the Trinidadian-born, Queens-raised artist speak about her first solo exhibition, “I Feel Everything,” a stunning collection of her hair-glue sculptures and her performance work. The Detroit-based Clarke is on the rise in a big way. In recent years her work has appeared in art fairs in Miami, Paris and Switzerland, as well as galleries in New York and Germany.
With an impressive oeuvre and a litany of accolades to her name, Allana is on the precipice of something huge. But let’s focus on the art. Using her body as a conduit, she layers performance art with sculptures and photography to create powerfully intimate explorations of Blackness. Her current solo exhibition consists primarily of her show-stopping hair glue sculptures. Through these dark, visceral, undulating sculptures, Clarke explores layers of Blackness both literally and figuratively.
We found time after all of the hoopla of EXPO to talk about her work, her process, and how exploration is at the center of everything she does.
Tell me about your background. How did you find yourself as an artist?
I grew up in New York City, mostly in Queens. I came to art-making at a really late stage in life. I cannot draw, I cannot paint, I can’t do anything figurative in that way, that is not my jam! When I went to high school I thought I wanted to be a doctor. As an immigrant, you’re like a doctor, a lawyer, or something respectable. I took all these courses in chemistry and I was just horrible at it. And I was like, “Okay, can’t do that! Maybe we’ll just go in the opposite direction and think about art.”
I was the first person to go to college in my family. And so it was a completely unknown landscape. I began collecting catalogs from the different schools, and for whatever reason I found myself being drawn to photography programs. And so I was like, “Okay, I know what a photograph is. I’ve had disposable Polaroids/Kodak cameras. I think I can do this!”
I enrolled at Queensborough Community College and took my first photography class. A few weeks into the class we got to developing and working in the darkroom. It was the most incredible feeling. Literally watching something emerge from nothing, taking this dripping-wet print and bringing it into the light! That moment really is magic.
It’s become a really beautiful metaphor for my life before art and after art. I never thought of myself as a person who could “make.” That feeling was the most incredible thing that had ever happened in my life to that point. And I’ve just been going at it ever since. Decades later, that is the driving force. It was a completely serendipitous series of events that got me here.
That seems to be a common throughline in your practice. Exploration and discovery in the unknown.
Absolutely. It feels like I know it now, having done this a few times. I know I need to be open in a precarious space of uncertainty. It can be so destabilizing and uncertain but I just trust that it’s okay, and what happens is okay. Something magnificent emerges from not existing in confinement.
What’s your sign?
Let’s talk about your artistic practice. Broadly speaking, what does your process look like?
My process can take so many different forms. I think that’s informed by my interdisciplinary practice. But also informed by being an artist and adapting to whatever circumstances. As an educator, I’m always putting this in my students’ heads. Right now you have academia, you have access to so many resources, there’s a safety embedded in that. Whatever random thing you need you can get it. You have space, you have time. You have structure.
My practice is influenced by a huge variety of circumstances, access to and lack of access to resources, working in non-ideal situations, and having big dreams but no money, space or time.
Reading, research, writing, and thinking is the foundation of everything. Me sitting at a desk reading, that’s my practice. Me writing, that’s my practice, me in the studio physically making objects, that’s my practice. Photography, working collaboratively with performers for videos or live performances, that’s my practice. It takes so many different forms and looks very different from day to day.
Tell me more about the hair-glue sculptures. How did that process develop?
It also developed in a really experimental manner. In January of 2022, I started a residency at NXTHVN which is an incredible place founded by Titus Kaphar.
I initially thought I would work on some performance and video works, but I got there and it was this beautiful huge studio and it was aching to be filled with objects. I had used bonding glue before in my work but it was for the performance and video realm. I used the material in the way that it’s supposed to be used to deconstruct the ideas around that process. So it had been something I was thinking about. Ten years forward to 2020 I was still thinking about this thing but it had been on the back-burner because of money.
Before working with the bonding glue I had been working with cocoa butter, also an organic material, not necessarily traditional art material. I was craving to bring a new context to the material. I was working through possibilities and trying to think about how I could defamiliarize it in a way and bring new context to it. Working with cocoa butter then gave me some foundational possibilities for how I could approach the bonding glue.
So I started this residency and I was like “All right, I want to work again with this material.” I was driving around to every beauty-supply store within a ten- to twenty-mile radius and buying all the glue.
I wonder if a Black lady came after you to buy hair glue and was like, “Are you kidding me?!”
Exactly, exactly! I am sure that happened! I was wiping them out, bringing them back to the studio, and then pouring them out on surfaces, on tables, on floors, on paper, and seeing what it would do. Through that process of analysis, I began to poke and probe at it and feel it. And there was so much energy to unpack there. So I just like scaled things up, up, up, which even further transformed the possibilities of the material. And then scaling it up even further and thinking about layers, gestures and movement, and this idea of transferral of energy from myself to the material.
Going into this I had ideas about trauma and violence, and suppression. But working with it, it was fun! It was freeing, it was exhilarating. It really made me realize something important, not only about my practice but also just the importance of accepting these strange occurrences and paying attention to what’s happening in the studio. The work doesn’t have to be trauma, it doesn’t have to be Black violence. I didn’t want to bring that forward into the world. What I’m actually thinking about is futurity. A world where Black people are in the future. There are Alisha Wormsley billboards, “There Are Black People In The Future.” It’s that. We survive, but it’s not only survival, it’s living and thriving and existing in completely new articulations. For me, that was so powerful and interesting; it has been the driving force for these works going forward.
Your shea butter sculptures and your hair glue sculptures are similar but also different. Is that due to the material, or is something else being expressed?
A lot of the works in cocoa butter are these hard-edge text-based works, but I also have a work with cocoa butter that does talk about the transformation of the material. It’s this steel vessel that has liquid cocoa butter in it. It also has a heating mechanism in the frame. It heats and cools the cocoa butter and different points while it’s on view. And while it’s hardening or cooling it does become very organic. I created the situation but it’s reacting to its environment. It’s also in flux. Which I definitely think relates to the hair-bonding-glue sculptures.
Your work uses common tools of beautification. So let’s talk about beauty in relation to Blackness. How do you define beauty and how does that appear in your work?
There are these structures that we’re born into and conditioned by that often train our eyes to think about pre-existing social orders. In this country but also globally there is this idea of whiteness at the top of this hierarchy, thus we are all conditioned to aspire to that type of ideal. It’s a difficult process of unlearning and thinking through multiplicity.
Can we have an unburdened idea of beauty? I guess this is the question I’d put back out to you. How can you have or develop an unburdened idea of what beauty is? I think the reason that is important to me is because of my experiences and the experience of many Black women. The idea that I literally didn’t know what my hair looked like until I was in my thirties. So many of us have that experience. Yes, [weaves] can be fun. But when you’re doing it because of this thing that has been embedded subconsciously that you actually have to. And that idea is being enforced through literal legislation that forbids you from participating in society in certain ways if your hair is braided, in an afro. That then reveals to me so much more about the insidious nature of the control of Black bodies.
Thinking about the bonding glue works as a kind of skin, as I do. They get sealed with a latex polish which is what gives them that sheen. Because otherwise, they’re ashy. When you think about cocoa butter and all these things to adorn the skin because you cannot be Black and ashy in this world. My very black sculptures can not be ashy in this world!
I’m also very much interested in minimalism. My video and photography are often very stark and unadorned. Ideas of minimalism I find most aesthetically pleasing. Those things are embedded in me and are so much a part of my visual articulation. No matter what, those tenants are always coming through.
Obviously, in my work I am interested in beauty. But not any kind of singular definition. I’m more interested in this guttural connection to something that you’re seeing that you feel curious about.
Because you take such a physical approach, your identity is deeply entwined with the works you produce. With such an intimate physical relationship with the works, what is it like to part with them?
It’s a really beautiful experience. I feel lucky to have opportunities to allow the work to exist more fully in the world. The work is nothing as an object on the wall. The work actually becomes something when others are able to experience it. Being able to allow it to leave the studio and exist in the world as its own entity that will have its own history and its own experiences, for me is such a profoundly powerful experience. It creates a possibility for that work that doesn’t exist in my studio if I’m the only one looking at it.
It’s like having a kid. They’re a part of you but they grow and develop and have their own personalities. There will always be this umbilical cord of connection that exists. But it has its own life and that’s okay.
You’re quite small yourself but you work on such a large scale. What does that mean to you? How does size and space consideration factor into your work?
That simple idea of taking up space. Being okay with having a presence. Giving yourself permission because no one else is going to, especially for Black women in the world. What does it mean to give yourself permission to take up space? And for that exhibition to create a Black space. Those were things I was thinking about. And so for me, it means everything. It means creating a space, a blueprint for other Black women artists to know that they can do it too.
I used to be the shyest, tiniest person. My dad was there [at Kavi Gupta] for the talk and he was like “Who are you? I remember when you wouldn’t talk at all.” Making art has transformed me so deeply. I can make something. I can work through everything that is happening inside me and output it for other people to talk about and experience. That opened me up. I never, ever thought I would be a performance artist. It’s wild that this is my life now.
During your talk at Kavi Gupta, you mentioned a sort of antipathy toward museums. Can you speak to that a little here? And with that in mind, how does it feel to have your work in those spaces now? What do you want your art to do in those more institutional spaces?
It’s wild because those are spaces I grew up not even knowing existed. There is something fundamentally problematic about the institutions to begin with. And it’s not just about putting a Black woman in there to course-correct after decades of bullshit.
I think they are inherently problematic, they are inherently exclusionary. I think the conversations have been formed, but I think there is an incredible amount of work to be done. And so part of that is about presence and representation in exhibitions and collections which is maybe the easier part of that equation to deal with. But you have to think about forms of access. We’re looking at the next generation and allowing them to see themselves reflected in these spaces. How can we actually make it a space for everyone?
Questioning and discovery is my greatest wish for what the work can do in these spaces. I think it’s so powerful, coming to a thing not having an answer for what you’re seeing and what you’re experiencing, but instead being forced to ask questions and deconstruct and unpack it. That for me is such an incredibly powerful process. I hope that the work allows that to happen to and for the people that encounter it.
In the narrative arc of art history, where do you think you foresee your work existing? Or, what do you want your work to say to the next generations?
It’s difficult to predict or imagine the canonical position of my work, but my hope is to place myself within the historical order of those that came before me, that investigated the linkages between abstraction and freedom and how those intersections can be of particular significance to those that are marginalized within our social order. I’m greatly influenced by the practices of abstract and conceptual artists Jennie C. Jones, Sam Gilliam, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Maren Hassinger, and Jack Whitten. Artists that turned to abstraction to live unbound and are not guided by reactionary impulses or replication of Black death or trauma but thinking through to a space unbound by such pain, in the aftermath, after the wake. I think about this excerpt from “In the Wake On Blackness and Being” by Christina Sharpe: “And while the wake produces Black death and trauma—’violence… precedes and exceeds Blacks’—we, Black people everywhere and anywhere we are, still produce in, into, and through the wake an insistence on existing: we insist Black being into the wake.”
There is a growing conversation in academia about the preservation of Black narratives through art. What intangibles need to be preserved and understood along with your work for its historical understanding and longevity?
For the longevity of the work I don’t think it is important for it to stay or be a fixed object that can only be understood or articulated in the same way that it is now, if I have made work that can exist into the future decades and still be powerful it will be because it oriented itself toward freedom, it was open and allowed those that are experiencing it to place themselves within close proximity to it and question.
What are you currently excited about? What are you looking forward to exploring?
The next thing I’m working on is my first museum solo exhibition which will be at SECCA in North Carolina. That will be next summer. It will be a combination of things, some preexisting work that will be on loan. But I’m also making my first huge, huge, massive, expansive installation with the hair-bonding glue. This will be a massive multi-panel installation where pieces are cascading and undulating onto the wall and the floor and really expanding the gestural articulations and movement and energy on a much larger scale than I’ve worked before. I’m really excited about that.
And then I’ll be working with the material on linen panels. I’m sure you can imagine that after I’ve poured all the material out of the bottles I have thousands of bottles I have to keep and I want to use all of the materials. There’s always a thin layer of material that gets cured in the bottle. My studio assistant Sofia and I pulled out the glue in the bottle and made them into long threads that kind of look like kinky hair. There are different articulations of the materials that I am exploring on canvas that I’m really deeply excited about.
But again, it’s about letting intuition, letting process guide the works.