June Clark’s Tubman (2023) is a large, mixed-media sculpture that captivates a glance immediately. Vertical strips of red, blue, and white yarn are bound together and stretched, by two metal chains, to give the monumental textile a top and a bottom. The sculpture curves partially at its base, under which sits a metal bucket containing one rusted metal spike and one spike that has been painted white. To encounter Tubman is to be startled, confronted, and then awed.
This was, at least, the trajectory of my own sensations as I approached Daniel Faria Gallery’s booth earlier this spring during Frieze New York. There, sitting quietly at the booth’s entrance was Clark, no doubt watching me, and many other fairgoers, become mesmerized. Tubman’s not-so-subtle allusion to the American flag visualizes the tensions that surround the very fragile and faulty premise of Black citizenship in the US just as it abstractly narrates the profundity of Harriet Tubman’s liberatory efforts of the nineteenth century. Personally, I was called back to the rooms of my childhood, reading a children’s book about Tubman with my father, carefully memorizing key biographical dates and, with much care, being reminded of a life now possible because of her life’s risks. Tubman is a work that dares its viewers into a remembrance that is both personal and political.
Indeed, I could say this of Clark’s entire oeuvre that spans photography, collage, and assemblage sculpture. For more than five decades she has taken up registers of memory as a kind of materiality, intentionally nodding to their entanglement. Such is the pulse of The Perseverance Suite (2021–ongoing), the series that includes Tubman. These are sculptures that understand the act (or acts) of remembrance as matter, which is to say that they are objects carrying the essences of place—its histories, presents, and even futures—molded into new forms. They extend an invitation to consider how we might encounter our own memories of the people and places who have made us anew. For Black folks in the US and throughout Turtle Island, in particular, Clark’s Perseverance Suite might also ask us to consider the weight of the specters of violences that surround the making of a life and the sweetness we cultivate in spite of such violence. What does it mean to not bend under this weight? I began to ask myself as I walked among Clark’s objects.
“How exactly did you make these sculptures, and why do they feel so charged?” a young person who had stepped inside the booth inquired of Clark. She rose to greet us both. I stepped aside as she responded, describing how she inherited some of the objects composing her sculptures from family elders and relatives, including her mother.
Clark refashions items such as hot combs, rolling pins, shovels, and pitchforks into nonfunctional objects. They speak to their former utilities—domestic and field tools reflective of how her family once labored; yet, through the implication of a personal lineage, Clark enables the abstracted and disruptive forms to serve as an offering. These heirlooms, gifts, and found items are kinetic for the artist. One untitled sculpture features a hot comb—a styling tool many Black people used to straighten hair in lieu of chemical straighteners. It’s rusted; Clark wrapped its handle in a ball of curly hair, then sutured the comb to a corroded spade shovel. Enough (2023) features a mass of a chain encased in a metal cage. The entire structure sits on a small bench. Another untitled work consists of four railroad spikes, balanced upright on a silver tray so their tips touch at the center. These objects become vocabulary for Clark’s ongoing dialogue with the people who have made her. Her ever-evolving visual language is therefore a consequence of her personal memory work.
I asked my own question next. “Are these objects haunted?” They were not. “I think of a haunting as a negative. I think the spirits are there and they are pleased,” she told me. These spirits constitute a knowledge system from which she makes. Her work takes spirit seriously as epistemology, to which Clark attends. “And sometimes I will go quiet and ask them something,” she said. “‘Point me in the right direction. What will make you happy?’” By now we are both sitting at the booth’s entrance, and Clark almost attempts to walk back her confession. “I know it sounds ridiculous.” But, in fact, it doesn’t.
Her insistence on the unseeable as a guiding conceptual methodology for her practice reminds me of other Black women who came of age as artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as Betye Saar, Suzanne Jackson, or the late Valerie Maynard. Each has cited memory as material, an insistent reckoning with Black pasts trailing behind them. It was Maynard who, in an interview with the critic and curator Angela N. Carroll, said that a person is a composite of everyone who has come before them. “That’s your voice, your soul, your person, your eyes, and everything you do.” It’s a sentiment that could have easily been voiced by Clark.
But this is not to suggest that Clark casts aside formal considerations about making. It is too tempting to reduce a confessed engagement with spirit as a gesture at odds with deliberate and intentional choices about craft. It is banal, even. However, a pleasurable point, for this viewer anyway, is the consideration of Clark’s personal cosmology—the superstitions she absorbed as a young person, the folktales passed down from her parents, the convenings with ghosts—as a device she uses to negotiate time and place.
I trace the origins of this negotiating to Clark’s earliest days as a young photographer. In 1968, at the height of US involvement in the Vietnam War, Clark and her then husband migrated to Toronto from Harlem to avoid his conscription in the draft. It was a departure that occurred within forty-eight hours. Not yet thirty, Clark found work as an administrator at the University of Toronto, but she was deeply homesick. “Wrenching” is how she once referred to the sudden separation. Her husband’s gift of a camera opened a portal: photography became a wayfinding tool for the young artist.
One of the first photographs by Clark I ever encountered is The Smoker (1977), in which a young Black man, seated, stares directly at Clark’s camera as he exhales a billow of smoke. The haze slightly obscures his face. It is a black-and-white portrait that communicates a momentary sense of release and confidence. In Patricia (1977), Clark’s sitter casts her glance beyond the frame of the photograph with eyes that seem to anticipate good news. She holds a cigarette in her right hand. Here, Clark’s camera feels less an intrusion but rather a welcomed guest sitting and waiting for the good tidings alongside its subject. “I was walking around Toronto trying to find the familiar,” she said as we kept talking. “I didn’t realize I was doing it, but I began photographing people sitting on their stoops, people hanging out on the corner.”
Bathurst Street, in particular, was her public studio of sorts, which now feels slightly auspicious. As the formerly enslaved sought refuge from enslavement in Canada during the late nineteenth-century, the Bloor and Bathurst neighborhood became a place of settlement for them. The area, once referred to as Blackhurst, remained a residence for Black migrants well into the twentieth century. With her camera, Clark documented the quotidian happenings of barbershops and hair salons, the style and flare of residents gathered at parks, and the unglamorous scene of dishes sitting in a kitchen sink, waiting to be washed.
Clark’s image-making practice did not remain in the realm of traditional portraiture or street photography for long. Printmaking, etchings, and collage work enabled the formal manipulation of the photographic image and, as such, resulted in what one might consider an intervention in the memories contained therein. Consider Formative Triptych (1989), which is comprised of three separate diptychs—each featuring a photo etching, placed within a light box, accompanied by Clark’s original writing. Two images are her own portraits from girlhood, and the third is of the famed Blues singer Bessie Smith. The short texts are not poetic musings but rather direct assessments of disappointments and declarations. “I decided that I must become so famous and so recognizable so that they could never let me die in an emergency room,” reads the statement paired with the photograph of Smith. Clark’s words recall the lore that once surrounded Smith’s death after a devastating car accident. There is a lingering hope to which Clark aspires: that her life might prove valuable enough to be saved should the need arise. Here, Clark collapses time—a girlhood, a death, the speculation of a future—and traverses multiple geographies—Harlem; Clarksdale, Mississippi; Toronto.
And though she never returned to Harlem to live as a permanent resident again, she visited family and friends regularly, never drifting far emotionally from its profound influence. In Harlem Quilt (1997), the room-size installation she originally created while in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Clark transferred hundreds of photographs that she took throughout the neighborhood onto swatches of multicolored fabric she sourced from a Harlem Salvation Army. She installs them on walls; lights strung up throughout these swatches turn the installation into a monument, an homage to the vibrancy of a place that had changed much since her first departure thirty years prior. Here again, memory pulsates around and within the work, an intangible substance that transforms the originating images.
But it is perhaps Clark’s series Family Secrets (1992) through which the pulse of her practice can be felt most intensely. In this mixed-media work, black boxes contain family photographs, old keys, coins, cowrie shells, spikes, pocket-size bibles, an American flag, and other found items. They are arranged neatly as delicate assemblages that point not to a linear narrative about Clark’s life but rather memory chests, with many entry points for making visible whispers, ghosts, superstitions, and dreams. Clark was inspired by the artist and filmmaker Joseph Cornell, whose assemblage boxes of the 1930s and ’40s communicate a spectrum of emotions through the pleasures of found objects. “Cornell’s work made me recognize the value and beauty of found objects as well as all of the items that I save,” Clark told me later in an email. Indeed, we see in The Perseverance Suite some of the very same items and motifs that preoccupied her more than thirty years ago—the instability of notions of citizenship, the residue of a domestic life—still lingering. A haunting can, perhaps, be of use to us. I did not say this to Clark, but I wish I had.
Besides, why should memory concern itself with linear time, anyway? It lives along a loop, within ciphers. There is no crescendo or climax to reach but rather new points of visitation and encounter. I think this is what it means to let spirit guide a way into the making process. The Perseverance Suite announces itself on these terms. In doing so, Clark architects a framework for an enduring communion. Metal will rust. Pigment will fade. But memory is the constant protagonist that we cannot outrun or ignore. So, we face it. Sit down next to it. Say hello and listen to what it has to tell us.