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?
AC: 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.
NCA: That seems to be a common throughline in your practice. Exploration and discovery in the unknown.
AC: 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.