Episode 012: In Pursuit of the Confederate Truce Flag with Artist Sonya Clark
The Confederate Truce Flag is a little known piece of Americana. It was flown as a white flag of surrender and delivered to the Appomattox Court House, Virginia in April 1865. A piece of it is owned by Smithsonian. It is not as iconic as the Confederate Battle Flag. Artist Sonya Clark wants to change that through her new exhibition Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum.
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Paul Farber: Sonya Clark, welcome to the Monument Lab Podcast.
Sonya Clark: Thank you, Paul. It's my pleasure to be here.
Farber: We are here with our friends and colleagues at Slought, and we're here to talk about your new exhibition Monumental Cloth, the Flag we Should Know, and the exhibition is based around a cultural artifact, that Confederate truce flag that you encountered. Can you tell us how you first discovered this truce flag?
Clark: So, here's the thing. Just the word "discovery" makes it sound like I unearthed something that was not available to us, and in fact, I found it quite easily. I was working at the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship that I think it was 2010 and maybe 2011. I had this fellowship spread across two summers. I was situated in the African Art Museum but I took it upon myself to spend time in many of the Smithsonians just on my lunch breaks, and so I went to the American History Museum and of course at the American History Museum is where the Star Spangled Banner is larger than life. You know the Star Spangled Banner originally was 30 by 50 feet, really quite large. It's not that scale now. It has a room to itself, and I went to visit this monumental cloth that we all know. The Star Spangled Banner has a song, maybe you are familiar with that [laughs] made for it. Then I made my way upstairs in the American History Museum, because I'm always interested in cultural objects and historical objects and I saw Lincoln's top hat. You all know what Lincoln's top hat looks like as well, right? And then in the same case with Lincoln's top hat was this little dishrag, actually half a dish rag folded in half, so something not too large and it said "Confederate Flag of Truth." I said, "How come I don't know this?" That's the question I keep asking. It's not that it wasn't there in the Smithsonian. It's not that it was squirreled away. It's just that it hasn't been amplified the way that other flags have been amplified, and so my charge here is an amplification. It's not like I found something that no one had discovered before. It's just that it hadn't been talked about. It doesn't live in our minds in the way that other flags do.
Farber: What is the difference between the Confederate battle flag and the Confederate truce flag?
Clark: Right. This is a perfect question, Paul because I actually think that the Confederate battle flag, which I suspect most people, your listeners certainly would know as the Confederate flag for short. Most of you, the people in this audience and most of the listeners would be able to draw one. It's a red flag with a red background and X through it, so the X is blue with white edges, and then stars, right? Familiar to everybody, right? That flag? Uh huh. That is one of the battle flags that was used in the Civil War from the Confederate side. Why do we know this battle flag? Why do we know the flag of the side that lost? Why indeed? The Confederate truce flag was not designed to be a battle flag. It was, as I described earlier, literally a dish cloth, a tea towel that was woven in Richmond, Virginia. At the time of me becoming aware of it, I was living in Richmond Virginia. I had been living there for about 12 years. Well, I lived there in total for about 12 years and this dishcloth got repurposed as a truce flag because of its color, because it's white and if you know anything about a truce flag, you know that it's white. One of the things that makes this particular truce flag have a slight design element is it has three minimal red stripes on either side, like a lot of dish cloths do. It looks like a dish cloth. It's got a waffle weave like a dish cloth would have, so that it can be absorbent so it can be used in the domestic space to do its job but its job again got repurposed when they got taken to the battlefield in Appomattox and used as the surrender flag or the truce flag by the southern side.
Farber: There are a lot of self described or even self appointed Civil War history buffs. As you've started to work on the Confederate truce flag and in your larger work in thinking about legacies of the Civil War, what are your interactions with them about each of these flags?
Clark: Right, so I have had people with the Confederate battle flag or the Confederate flag, as we say for short, I've had many people who have told me, needed really to tell me that the Confederate battle flag was one of many Confederate flags. That's in fact true, and when I think about state flags, the Georgia State flag and the South Carolina, is that right? Maybe it's Georgia and Mississippi, both had the Confederate battle flag in then and then I believe Georgia got rid of theirs, got rid of the reference to the battle flag and just put in another lesser known Confederate flag, the one that's usually referred to as stars and bars, so they replaced the Confederate flag with another Confederate flag, problematic in my opinion, but I've also had Civil War historians say things to me like, "Well, you know, the difference between the Confederate flag and the Confederate battle flag is whether one is square or rectangular. There are many of them. This one was used in this battle and that battle," and sort of a kind of precision around which battle flags were used when and where and I think one of the reasons that we know the "Confederate flag"" for short is the way that it has been used in propaganda, the way that the KKK popularized it and that's why it lives in our minds. When I called the museum in Appomattox and asked them about the truce flag, the person who I spoke with on the phone said, I said I'd like to know about the Confederate flag of truce, and this is what I got. Which Confederate troops flag?" I said, well, "I am calling Appomattox, so that one," and then they said, the person on the phone, the gentleman on the phone said, "We have the largest portion of it." Now, this was surprising to me, because you don't need to know a lot of math to know that the one at the Smithsonian is half of the dish cloth. That's what it says in the Smithsonian label. That's half the dishcloth, so how can someone have the largest half. I said, "Can you describe to me how large is the portion that you have?" He described a few inches and I said, "Do you not know that the Smithsonian has half of it?" This is someone who was working at that museum as a historian, so it's interesting what specificity gets amplified and what sort of goes in the background. For someone to say we have the largest portion, the correct thing would be to say, maybe we have the largest portion of the other half, which got divided in lots of different pieces. The Smithsonian has half and then the other half got divided in lots of pieces. That would be more specific, but it seemed like this person didn't quite know that or didn't really care.
Farber: How significant is it to you that this exists as a fragment? Do you have a sense of how significant it might be for history's sake also?
Clark: I'm hoping it would be very significant for history's sake, and for future's sake actually. I think the reason that the Smithsonian has it and I believe it's one of the hundred objects that the Smithsonian writes about, like if you go to the Smithsonian website, and you put Confederate Flag of Truce, the Confederate Flag of Truce will pop up. It really is there. I don't want you to think I found something, I was digging in the earth and I found something. It's there in the museum.
Farber: There was no dust on it? Was it prominent?
Clark: It was dimly lit and well preserved. I think in terms of history, one of the things that's also interesting to me is that sometimes, I've been in exhibitions where a museum, art exhibitions where a museum has gathered, let me be specific. I was in a museum show called Southern Accent, and it had a number of artists who had lived in the south, who were from the south, and the show was put together by two curators Trevor Schoonmaker at the Duke National Museum of Art, and Miranda Lash at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, and it moved from one institution to the other. Miranda put together this symposium because just as it did move to her institution is when there was so much discussion about the bringing and coming down of monuments and she said, "We should really do a symposium around this and invite some historians, some artists," and in my little 10 minutes of talk, I put up the Confederate Flag of Truce from The Smithsonian's collection. Normally when I put it up, I've already shown the battle flag, the Confederate battle flag, and I said, does everyone know this? Everyone's like, "Yeah, of course" and there are sort of groans in the audience. Then I put up the truce flag and I said, "Does anybody know this?", and most people don't, but I thought in this instance, because there were so many historians and artists, certainly this was going to be the time when someone was going to raise their hand and say, of course I know what that is, that's the Confederate Flag of Truce. Once again, nobody knew, and there were experts in that audience. The only person who raised their hand was a curator, actually, museum director, who had heard me give the talk before, so that's the power of art. That's one of the things I can do as an artist is amplify this historical object.
Farber: You work with flags, with fabric, with textile and we'll talk through some of your other projects. Just curious whether as family history or kind of in your own development, how you came to work in this way with these kinds of materials.
Clark: Oh, with textiles?
Farber: Yeah, with textiles.
Clark: I think textiles have a lot of power. In fact, I think that most craft based media have a lot of power because these are old, old, old technologies, right? Textile artists love to say this. We would have no iPhones if it weren't for looms, right? Do you all know that? Old technologies, we think of craft as being oh, technology is our iPhones, there are no computers if there weren't Jacquard looms, which had a punch card system, which led to punch card systems that became computers, old computers, so no iPhones without looms, right? When we think about old technologies, like already that's some sort of amazing thing, the Jacquard loom leading to contemporary what we call technology now. Also there's this wonderful thing about textiles, which is that we are in constant contact with textiles. Not one of you came into the room nude, so you have textiles knowing you and you knowing textiles in the most intimate places. They know you really, really, really well, so it becomes a medium that I can talk to my audience through because you already have some versatility, some fluency in the language of cloth. Now, you might not know how something is woven or knit or the structure, but you know something of cloth and cloth is surrounding you all the time. I would say you would be hard pressed to name a point in your day when you're not touching cloth, maybe in the shower, if you don't use a washcloth. Then the first thing you do is step on a mat and grab a towel, right? That's the only time. Someone said to me once, "Well, I sleep in the nude." A lot of information but did you have sheets on your bed? [Laughs] You know what I mean? We're in constant constant conversation with this medium. There's power there. There's an idea of how old the technology is, how it's in our language. We talked about the fabric of our nation, we talked about weaving a story, the thread that runs through it. It lives on the tip of our tongue, text and textile. Guess what? They share a common root. Even in our language, textiles are present. In my own family heritage, my grandmother was a tailor and she would have said that being a milliner and a tailor saved her life because she was adopted, and she had to sort of make her own way by the family that took her in and they weren't a very affluent family. At some point, they said, you're kind of old enough, you're going to have to find your way. She had a dream in which she saw Sangster's Bookstore, which was this famous bookstore that still exists in Jamaica. My grandmother was Jamaican, and she said, "That's where I'm going to get a job" because it came to her in a dream, which meant it came to her from the ancestors so she knew this is where she was going to get a job and so she went to Sangster's Bookstore and they said you're too young and we can't give you a job and she didn't understand because it came to her in a dream so this is supposed to happen. She was leaving and was slightly dejected and trying to figure out what to do next and she turned back to look above Sangster's Bookstore and there was a woman who had a millinery shop and a tailor shop and that's actually where she made her living and my grandmother was badass. Is that going to get bleeped? Can I say ass?
Farber: No, we can say that.
Clark: Okay, just checking because she was badass. She taught me how to stitch and sew from when I was a very small child. We were only on this earth together for 10 years and she was the family griot. Her children lived in Jamaica – Take note of these places – Her family lived in Jamaica, Ghana, the United Kingdom, specifically in England and America, all points on the triangle trade routes, right? She would go from place to place to place with her own children arguing over who got her next with all these beloved grandchildren and she would not only tell us stories about each other, but with me, she would stitch and tell stories together. I understand that cloth is also a great mediator for storytelling.
Farber: What kind of stories did she share? Do you still have items that she sewed?
Clark: Yeah, there's a sort of this beautiful heirloom. There's a dress that my grandmother made for my mother when she graduated from nursing school, so my mother's graduation dress which my mother also wore as her wedding dress, which I also wore as my graduation dress from college, and which my niece also wore as her graduation dress from high school, and it's a beautiful white dress. We all feel our grandmother in that. The power of an heirloom, the difference between a hand me down, like if your older sibling gives you a shirt or something like that, that's a hand me down but when it passes a generation, then it's elevated. It takes on everybody's story, that particular garment.
Farber: You know, there's the saying that "measure twice, cut once" and a lot of your work deals with measurement and calibrating, creating systems that reflect our consciousness and I'm curious from your standpoint, do you carry that from the kind of the art of stitching?
Clark: You know, I'd never made that association before but this is why we need each other, Paul. No, seriously. Now I'm thinking perhaps that is part of it because my grandmother taught me some precise things. I can thread a needle behind my back in the dark because of how she taught me to thread. That's true, actually, because of how she taught me to thread the needle and to figure out how to make your stitches very fine when you want them to be fine. There is this kind of precision, but I suspect one of the things that you're talking about is artworks in which I'm trying to measure something about history, so actualize some parts of our history that are kind of unfathomable and to embody them in material and form. Certainly, this project is about that too. One of the things that comes to mind, let me give you an example of what I mean by that. There's a piece that I made in 2014 and it's a spool, a spool of thread. The spool is made out of ebony that is sourced from the continent of Africa, sustainably sourced and gold, 18 karat gold that probably is the most expensive piece I've ever gathered the materials for, also sustainably gathered gold and the 18 karat gold is hair thin and it is inches to miles the distance between Richmond, Virginia, which was my home at the time and the Gold Coast or I should know the precise measurement but it's about 5,200 inches because it's about 5200 miles. I was just trying to mark something about value, what we value and how we value, like the bodies that have to do with that Gold Coast trading. Certainly this marking between the space of the Gold Coast Ghana, even named as such, and Richmond Virginia, which was the second largest port of human trafficking and enslaving people, and just marking that distance in this very small but very valuable object and sort of thinking about the value of lives and the value of objects and how things come to have value.
Farber: You lived in Virginia for a number of years. You no longer teach in Richmond, but you still have a studio there and clearly, Richmond is invoked in your work and it's the former seat of the Confederacy. What did you bring to Richmond and what did you take away?
Clark: I had never lived in the south. I grew up in Washington, D.C. My parents both emigrated to the United States from the Caribbean so I don't have Southern roots or I like to say I had deeply Southern roots. Before America was America, my people were in the Caribbean for the same reason that most African Americans who have deep Southern roots would be here. So I moved to Richmond, Virginia, after living in several places. I've lived in Madison, Wisconsin, in Kansas City, Missouri, in Chicago, lots of places just outside of Detroit, . Richmond, Virginia is a place that I'd lived the longest other than Washington, D.C. I lived there for 12 years. That was not far from Washington, D.C. It really feels like the South and it feels like the South because it's the former seat of the Confederacy and there are a lot of Confederate battle flags there. Even before I move there, I remember asking other artists, because they moved there for this really great art school. The Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts had this great reputation. I wanted to be there in that location. I chaired the craft department there so it was a great job and a great institution. A lot of my friends said to me, "You're moving to the South. Will you be okay?", as if no black people had ever lived in the south before. As I lived there, and I was asking other artists, "What's it like to live here, really? What is it like to live here? Day to day, what is it like?" One of the things that I discovered, or that my takeaway from Richmond was, is that Richmond is not a southern story. Richmond, Virginia's story and its history is not only a national story, but a global story, and the reason it's a national story is that it's not a story. Richmond's story is not a story of the South. Richmond's story is a story of how America was founded as an empire on the backs of enslaved people and the genocide of people, Jamestown. I mean Virginia's story is foundational to the United States of America, but also foundational to this global enterprise of cotton trade, indigo trade, sugar trade, all of those trading in people, trading in human beings so it becomes a global story, and that's one way that's sort of pivoting. The South is this thing that the North can relinquish its consciousness of. Nope. Everybody was in the business in some manner or another, so that was kind of my big takeaway from that, yeah.
Farber: You have a number, a wide variety of projects, but flags are clearly an important motif and method to your work. What about flags, national flags, cultural flags pulled you in and kind of keep you hungry for new approaches and new work?
Clark: Well, I've already told you why textiles, so flags normally are made out of cloth, though they're also symbols, like the battle flag is a symbol. It lives on a bumper sticker as easily as it does on cloth. There's something about the power that cloth can be given a political power, that cloth can be given the propaganda, that kind of power that cloth can be given, the monument of it, actually, she says to Paul Farber of Monument Lab. Paul, you and I have talked about this, but I actually think that flags can be more monumental than a chunk of metal or stone carved because they live, because a flag, the symbol, the cloth and then the symbol can live on in the minds of many people. You can take down a monument, but you can't take down the symbol out of someone's head. Remember when Dylann Roof committed the massacre in 2015 in just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, at the Emanuel AME church, killing innocent black people who are praying, and this nation said, "Okay, that's it. We're not selling any more Confederate flags." That doesn't prevent anyone from drawing one, making one because we have that monument in our mental, in our psyches, so there's something really impactful about that. This project, Monumental Cloth: The Flag We Should Know is pushing back or using that same strategy, turning it on its head. What does it mean if this then becomes the thing that is in our minds instead of that battle flag? What does that mean? How does that shift something in the way that we think about ourselves, our history, what we take in passively or not even passively.
Farber: Oh, you've a pair of projects, Unraveled and Unraveling, that deal with the Confederate battle flag. What are the kind of shared principles of that project and how does Unraveling and Unraveled depart for you?
Clark: Let me describe the project a little bit. I had in 2015, which was the sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, so I'm living in Richmond, Virginia. Everybody's talking about this, the end of the Civil War. This is also the time Obama was still in office and simultaneously in social media, the nation was plagued or present in our minds was something that is a dirty, ugly not so secret but pervasive thing that has happened in this nation is that black and brown people get killed in the streets all the time and people were witnessing that on their phones and I thought of that as being this tie between White Supremacy, hatred, Confederate flag, enslavement of people of African descent, the policing of people of African descent, plantation to prisons, police brutality, all of this as being a lineage that runs through this country, right? So I thought if it's the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War, how far have we come? What would it look like if that contentious symbol, the Confederate battle flag was taken down to its threads really deconstructed? The first thing I did was unraveled the beautifully made Confederate battle flag to get down to its threads, red, white and blue piles, so not only took it down to its threads, but also segregated those threads. What flag might it have become from? Many people said to me, "Are you then going to leave an American flag out of it?" That actually never happened, it's never happened. That piece lived as sort of this end game, like what would happen if the Confederacy truly was taken down. Then I realized that wasn't enough, because that's not what's actually what we're doing. The endgame is a great goal to have in mind but one of the things that is happening is that we're not there yet, so I invited people to join me in the process of unraveling, so I would stand by a flag that was partially unraveled and I was a constant on the right hand side of the flag, not that doesn't matter that I was on the right hand side of the flag, and then one by one, people would join me for a few minutes and we would talk about the structure of cloth and we would talk about why they came and we would talk about the history and the legacy of the Civil War and how it plays in the present. I would ask people why they were there, what it meant to be there, what it meant to unravel, all of those things. I gathered so many stories from that. I performed the piece, maybe 10 times now, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. I get stories that range from a young woman who looked phenotypically white and was pregnant and carrying a child. The father of the child is black, and she said, I'm scared for this child's life in a way that I've never thought of fear before," so her white body was holding this black body and thinking about preserving its life already child is born, and other people who were just like, This is taking forever, can we just cut this down, burn it, bury it, do something?" I said that's what John Sims does. John Sims is another artist. He's already taken care of that, got Bree Newsome climbing a pole, we're not working at cross purposes, everybody's in it. [Laughs] So many conversations about what the action meant, and also I would have to remind people that in this case, the action was a metaphor, that when people came to unravel with me, you can feel good about the metaphor of that but you still have to go out and do the work, which means you have to talk to that uncle who voted for you know who, who you don't have an easy conversation with. Don't think that you pull a thread that feels really good, yay, and then the work is done. It's a metaphor for what needs to be done and 50 people in two hours undo only about a half inch so it's very clear that the work is slow going.
Farber: Do you find that people are frustrated? Are they able to match that pace and do they connect it, I guess, in general, to your invitation to think about the metaphor, the kind of necessary work it takes to dismantle and unravel white supremacy?
Clark: That's right. There's this sort of at the granular level, there is really something satisfying about pulling something apart, pulling a cloth apart. I've had people who feel heartbroken when they try and pull a thread and it breaks, I mean, heartbroken and they think that doesn't necessarily mean anything. I've had people say, literally say to me, does that mean I'm racist? Because you broke a thread?
Farber: During this project?
Clark: Yes, I mean, it can be like, that's how powerful symbol and metaphor.
Farber: It's like alchemy.
Clark: They kind of pull a thread and it breaks and they think, what does that mean? Okay, you can assign meaning to that. Then other people who just, I am saying, okay, you have to move on. It's been really great but it feels so satisfying to pull a thread after a thread after a thread, and then you realize you've just pulled like a micro millimeter of this flag, but it still feel satisfying. I've also had people pull a thread and though I asked them to leave them there, they want evidence that they did something so they say, "Can I take the thread that I pulled, one of the threads that I pulled with me?" A lot of ladies with thread from a Confederate battle flag tucked in their bras that [Laughs] they just want, I did something, so there's a sort of granularity and there's something really nice about we're doing it together. I show them how. I explain how the cloth is made, I'm explaining structural racism, and then I say how do we dismantle? This is how it's made. This is how it's taken apart. The metaphors, they just make themselves. Then people also have a well, "When will we finish this?" "No time today." Then this is also the sort of other wonderful part of it though I guess I don't want to get into the economics of how artwork works but the less flag there is, the more valuable the pieces [are] so when it disappears is when it will be its most valuable. Curators and museum directors get that conceptually, which I love. When you buy nothing is when it's everything, [Laughs].
Farber: I have a good friend and colleague, Katherine Lennard, who her research is on the mass production of Klan robes pushing against the myth that in the dark of night, vigilante white supremacists grab bedsheets and cut eye holes in them and instead looks at the circuits of production, the manufacturing, the fact that some of the companies that produced Klan robes still exist and produce clothing today. As you were working on Unraveling, how did the conversation go about the mass production of this symbol, of this monumental cloth?
Clark: Yeah. I have a studio manager named Meg Roberts Arsenovic. She's a European American person, and I make her buy the Confederate battle flag that I use because I can't take the pop up ads. I would have thrown many computers across the room. She doesn't love it either but yeah, I just tell her it's black privilege. [Laughs] We look about where they're sourced. There are a lot of flags that are made in China, I try and get ones that are made in the United States of America because conceptually that makes more sense to me, but who was making them, why they're making them. In fact, the exhibition at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, there is a list, there's a piece that is entitled Propaganda and it is simply a list of all the ways that one can have the symbol of the Confederate battle flag in their lives, from bumper stickers, actual flags, bikinis, the list goes on. It's a list of about over 200 items. The one that always gets me is yoga mats. Your listeners can't see my face but they can imagine it.
Farber: Yeah, I mean, I almost want to ask you, what were the items that were the strangest that strike you, but perhaps it's the long list of 200.
Clark: Yeah, that's why the piece is called Propaganda. That's why we know what the Confederate battle flag looks like, because it's plastered everywhere. That's why I think of it as being one of the most divisive monuments in our psyche, in our collective psyche. How did it get there in the first place? I often ask people to think like, when did you first encounter a Confederate flag? Sometimes people can't remember, but they know it, and I think about some of my own stories, like some of my stories have to do with things like watching the Dukes of Hazzard, so popular culture, Confederate battle flag is on the roof of that car and on the license plate. Those are just some good old boys having a good time, so the Confederacy is fun. It's a very dangerous territory. Then I have a story about being a kid growing up in D.C. going to an amusement park and just outside of Richmond, Virginia, the amusement park is called King's Dominion and the ride we all wanted to go on in the late 70s, early 80s was this wooden roller coaster. It took all these twists and turns. I'll tell you that I got my first kiss, yes I did when a group of friends, our parents took a group of us to this amusement park and we sat on this roller coaster and we were encouraged to yell and scream and the name of the roller coaster that we were having so much fun on was called the Rebel Yell, named for the Confederate battle cry. The way in which it's like, oh the Confederacy is fun, as if it isn't about the subjugation of people, as is if it wasn't about empire building by suppressing people and treating African people and indigenous people as less than human. It's fun instead, so how early is that message sent? That's all the kind of thing that I'm trying to like push against and shed light on and my first degree was in psychology so I just am interested in how our minds work individually and collectively, yeah.
Farber: Yeah, I was wondering, in thinking about Unraveling, how much of that work is cathartic for you or if that's not the goal and if you experience catharsis or other kinds of I guess emotional and social responses to that ritual that you're enacting.
Clark: It is endurance for me because I'm standing for a fair amount of time while I'm performing unraveling. I'm standing for a fair amount of time and while I'm standing, I never know who I'm going to get. I've had a gentleman who said to me, he came to unravel, I think with his wife, she probably dragged him over, we're going to do this art thing today. He said to me, "Yeah, I guess the losers are always thought of as being the bad guy." I wasn't expecting that. I said, "You realize we wouldn't be standing here together if the Civil War hadn't gone the way that it went," and he said, "I guess that's true," like, really the privilege of being able to go, that's interesting. To take that in as a story, an American story, that's part of the story, to see what people bring to me, what they want to share with me, their fears, their anger, I've had people who have been afraid of touching the cloth, and I said, really it's just a piece of cloth. I try, it's just a piece of cloth. Yes, it's this terrible symbol. It's just a piece of cloth, so that someone who has shaking hands because of their fear of what this symbol stands for, in terms of lynching and the history of lynching, and people in their family who have been lynched, I say it's just a piece of cloth. In terms of my own catharsis, every time I think about, let me say it this way, this piece might be the piece, and this piece being Unraveling and Unraveled might be the piece of artwork that to date, more people know me for than anything else. If they know me, they they know something about unraveled and unraveling. In fact, if you Google me, there I am with a Confederate flag at my fingertips, so we have to do something about that. In that sense, there's this kind of irony that I'm working with this contentious symbol, really trying to interrogate this contentious symbol and bringing it down, and there's so much blood on these symbols simultaneously. Then there was like not ancient history, not generations ago blood, but the first time that I performed Unraveling, it was a week and days later that Dylann Roof killed people. That story still chokes me up, and I know it's many, many, many people's lives, but there's something about that timing that always catches me. I don't know if that's about catharsis but it is something about awareness and the work that has to be done. We must do this work.
Farber: When you see Google searches with the Confederate battle flag in your fingertips, or I know when we first spoke, you mentioned showing up to a college campus or to a museum and seeing your face next to the battle flag, how do you weigh that toll with what you just mentioned, which is the necessity of the work?
Clark: Yes, it's an interesting thing when you, probably this happens with a lot of people, you think of an artist and you think of the work that goes with that artist and I thought, so a lot of invitations at museums and colleges and universities are coming because of this work. Certainly, if I'm performing it and I caution them, I say when you're putting up a poster, I often encourage people to put a poster up of the detail, which is my hands, actually the hands of my studio manager Meg Arsenovic there as we are, so you don't see the whole flag. You just see the work that we're doing, but if you know the flag, you know what it is as opposed to the whole image of the flag, and I always say to people, you're just putting up more Confederate flags. Is that what you mean to do? They go oh my gosh, so yeah don't do that. Put up a piece and put up my face if you have to, put up a detail if you have to but I don't think the world needs any more Confederate flags. In fact, I think that that problem and then the occasion of the Fabric Workshop and Museum coming to me and asking me what project I'd like to work on said oh yeah, let's get that other flag out in people's minds. Let's have a zillion of those, let that be the thing that's at my fingertips and at everybody's fingertips and then everybody's consciousness, the truce flag as opposed to the Confederate battle flag.
Farber: In the spirit of other flags like Confederate battle flag, you're also working with the African American Museum here in Philadelphia. One of the other ways that you deal with the legacy of flags is not with textile, but with brick. The project Edifice and Mortar, which we're seeing here, what is the story of this flag project for you?
Clark: Yeah. I always wonder if people read this as a flag. Of course, you've said flag a number of times. Let me describe it a little bit so that people can understand what I was thinking about. I have spent a lot of time in Italy, and one of the times that I was there, I was really looking at Lincoln and Garibaldi being in conversation with one another, they were, so Lincoln dealing with a nation coming apart, and Garibaldi trying to form Italy into the nation that we now call Italy, right? What was happening with these two gentlemen? I thought I'd just do some sort of comparative thing, like look at the popular culture around them, Lincoln's top hat and Garibaldi was known for wearing this very specific hat as well. Then what I found while I was there was I found myself paying a little bit more attention to empire building, like going back to ancient Rome and thinking about bricks and thinking about enslaved people, the case of the Roman Empire, not that race didn't play into it, as it did, and the empire building the United States or in the Americas, but who was making those bricks. Richmond is very much a brick city, so there are a lot of bricks that were made by enslaved African and African Americans that built Richmond. This idea of you walk in a building and it seems like it just magically appeared. That's the way people used to go when they would go to Monticello, "Oh Jefferson lived in this lovely house." It's like, "Yeah, there were hundreds of slaves here too, and they're just not present, only the evidence of what they did is present, what they built." This idea of an Edifice and Mortar, I was thinking about empire building is, of course, the United States of America was looking at ancient Rome and ancient Greece for how it was building its empire and America, it too built its empire on the back of slavery, just like the Roman Empire did, and brick building becomes one of those places where both empires used in slave labor. This piece is 13 bricks high to describe the piece and proportionally as wide as a flag would be. The 45th President was starting to have a lot of talks about building a wall, still doing that. Thinking about walls, thinking about issues about immigration, who's forcibly migrated, who's allowed into the country and why and then, so you can imagine this 13 bricks high to refer to the 13 stripes of the American flag and then the bottom left hand corner of this brick wall is a blue glass that is at an angle that reflects anybody who comes to see the piece. The mortar is made out of African American hair that has been gathered from salons in Richmond, Virginia. My thought was that that was one way of being a sort of synecdoche of the presence of African American people through our DNA, through our hair. I often do that. I use hair a lot in work to stand in for the African American presence. The mortar for the piece is made out of African American hair and the sense is that both the edifice of this building has been built on the backs of enslaved labor, but also keeping the African Americans still in their place in a away, like dependent and restrictive simultaneously. On each brick is stamped "we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal," so the sense of that paradox, the great American paradox about equality and justice and democracy and genocide and enslavement and subjugation is being sort of the warp and weft of our nation.
Farber: You seem to take on the responsibility of kind of calibrating history on one hand, marking milestones and moments, but also pushing us to reckon with what is unresolved and what holds us back, so to speak. Is that part of what pushes your work? Do you take on that mantle?
Clark: I hope that the work leaves people with some questions, because I think that when you have a question in play, especially a difficult question, like how can we have this paradox? How do we live with ourselves with this paradox, then, my hope is that when a viewer or an audience member walks away with a question, they're chewing on the gristle of that question, that it's in play longer than a period at the end, walk away from an artwork and it's sort of ba-dum-dum-ching, like got it. This means that, that means that, that means that, that means that and it's just like, huh, what about that? How can it be both this and that? How do we live with that cognitive dissonance? We live with cognitive dissonance every day. How do we do that? I'm hoping that the work is imbued with some of that because for me personally, the work that, even my own work, that leaves me with more questions than answers is the more powerful work. Sometimes a one liner is enjoyable it works but if you dig a little deeper hopefully it's more than a one liner.
Farber: I do want to ask you a few more questions and kind of going back to this monumental cloth, the Confederate Truce Flag, although it looks easy, it's fairly hard to topple a monument. Cities around the country have struggled with how to do it, when to do it, and what kind of stories come up or what kind of stories are necessary for long term change. How do you go about through this project trying to topple an icon of the Confederate battle flag?
Clark: Right, so I think there are a couple things. One is that I'm trying to replace one image with another but I also think that it raises also the question that has been playing in our conversation like, really, why do we know this battle flag? Why does it keep circulating in our history? Why do we know it so well that a child could draw it? How did that happen?
Farber: Why is the flag of surrender a small footnote?
Clark: Yeah, why is it a small footnote and how to amplify that but the flag of surrender also is complicated, because one of the things that I think about is what does surrender mean, what does truce mean, what does reconciliation mean, what does peace really look like, what do we have to surrender to get to true democracy, what privileges need because I'm a privileged person too, I'm educated whatever, I have privileges but what do we need to give up in order to make room for democracy really to take hold because while this truce flag was about brokering some manner of like, let's move towards peace, or at least let's stop fighting, very quickly, that agreement got undone and the battle flag came back into play, the KKK can play, lynching was just, Jim Crow laws, lynching and raping of black people was just everyday practice. What would it mean if this actually did take hold, if this truce really did take hold? What would that look like? Because we are certainly not there yet, so I'm hoping the piece asks that question, not only to replace the image in our mind but if it replaced the battle flag, like "Okay, so now who are we if we were spending our time thinking about the work of reconciliation, the work of what a truce is, what do we need to surrender as a nation to get to equality and justice with, what is that work and it's a different kind of work than unraveling?" In fact, in the exhibition, one of the things that people have the opportunity to do is to make a quick version and collective much slower version of a truce flag as well as encountering really, really large one, large scale one and many, many true to scale ones, so how to get us involved sort of in the process of what a truce really means, what peace really means, what justice really means, because we almost all have to give up something and what is it that we have to give up?
Farber: I'm going to pivot now to try to open up for anyone in the audience with questions. We have a microphone for you.
Audience 1: Hi. I guess my question is just how you choose the materials that you work with, because it seems like you've worked with a lot of materials through the span of your career, like you just talked about how you're working with hair. I know in other projects you've worked with combs and sugar and stuff like that. I know you were saying earlier how you came about working with the truce flag specifically how kind of the combination of you just being an investigative person and also your interest in American history. How do you choose the materials that you work with, because it seems like there's just such a big array and do you think think about that, what you will work with in the future?
Clark: I think that there's so, I think that materials and materiality, there's so much story there. I spent a little bit of time talking about why textiles because there's a language in any medium or any material and so I gravitated towards using textiles. I'm looking for textile objects every once in a while, but I also think that there's something really powerful about everyday things. Textiles are very everyday things. What does it mean to investigate a very everyday material? That explains textiles, and I could walk my way through every single one of those things that you asked about. Hair is the fiber that we grow, so I like to say that the first textile art form is actually hairdressing. It's more than that, because the hair that we grow is not just the hair that we grow. Hair is the thing that brings us together and takes us apart, and what I mean by that is that our DNA is in our hair so the thing that holds us all together as humans is in our hair, in each strand of every hair and for those of you who don't have much hair on your heads, wherever you grow hair, those strands, that's the stuff that holds us together, and then texture pulls us apart. Hair becomes this great material that's just there as ready made portraiture, individuality, culture. It has to do with race and race dynamics and overall about humanity. There's a lot just in a strand of hair, and you can do that with any material. I was trained as a textile artist so I'm going to gravitate towards things that have to do with that and you know that I'm interested in hair, that a leap to combs is not a leap at all, and even I would say between a comb and a loom, there's a comb on a loom. In order to deal with almost any textile process, there's a comb like thing involved. Working with sugar came about because my family's from the Caribbean and the reason that those of us who are of African descent landed in the Caribbean because of the cash crop of sugarcane, which is also a fiber so I've made pieces out of bagasse, which is the waste material. When you squeeze out all the sugarcane, you take away all the good stuff, then this waste material that usually gets, used to get just thrown away has now become a green material. There's history in the waste material. What does that mean to use the waste material, what gets amplified? The sugar, what gets thrown away? The bagasse. What does it mean to make something out of the bagasse fiber?
Clark: I often am thinking, even when I was using gold, I was thinking about gold and people see gold and gold we think of gold as being a commodity, a symbol of lots of things, about wealth and prosperity and all of that. I didn't tell you about that story. One of the things about that piece that Ebony spool with us that had the 5,200 inches of gold thread or gold wire is that I grew up in Washington D.C. in a neighborhood that used to be called the Gold Coast. You guys have a Society Hill here, and I don't know if Society Hill is really like the wealthiest people live there. That's not really what was happening in Washington, D.C. but middle class and upper middle class black people live there, so it was sort of like Gold Coast Ghana, Gold Coast D.C. There's some irony in there. People will say, if you're a middle class black person, people will say oh, your upper class but if you're a really, really wealthy European person, people will say oh, I know I'm just comfortable, like that sort of irony that can happen too, but yeah, material is always the thing that interests me. Sometimes I'm inspired by the material first and then I find the project to go with it, and sometimes I find the project and then I try and figure out what is the right material but every material has its history, every single one, sort of can't go wrong if you think about it that way.
Audience 2: Part of what you said that really intrigues me is the idea of metaphor of taking an object and then the ideas that are part of that object or that that object can unleash within society, and what I'm interested in is how you have thought about the power of that metaphor. If we can, if we could take for example, the goal of having this truce flag be the one that we understand coming out of the experience of the war and so on rather than the battle flag, what would happen because I can see in the one hand like probably everybody here believes in the same way that we would like to see that happen, we would like to address the issue, the institutional racism, the problems in our history, we'd like to clarify that and to rescue the best parts of it but given our society today, I can see that that use of a metaphor could actually harden certain lines and create a new sort of civil war in a way, because the people that feel that they're losing as history has changed and reevaluated and new people are having a voice are going to claim even more to that metaphor, because they're losing something in the real world. I'm wondering what you thought about what that power of metaphor can do, where it can take us, what could be the positive and maybe I won't say negative incomes, because maybe in a way we need a new Civil War, not a violent confrontational one, but we need to address in a serious way those problems of history that are imbued in things like the flags.
Clark: Well, I'd like to thank you for your question, and thank you for the previous question too. I'd like to say that I think that there's one way of answering why don't we know the Confederate Flag of Truce as well as we know one of the battle flags? The answer could be because the battle is never over. We're still fighting this battle. It's not to say that we'd be starting a new battle, it would be acknowledging that we're still fighting the battle. I think that that has to do with, I think about places like South Africa or Germany, where there have been such upheavals and how those places had done much better jobs around truth and reconciliation. One thing is to acknowledge the paradox, to acknowledge what is true, to acknowledge what's actually happening, and I do feel like that is actually happening. Then what do we do about it? That's also happening. I mean I wouldn't be here with you all if emancipation hadn't happened, if educational opportunities hadn't been opened up to me but I also know simultaneously that the educational system is rigged. I have a great education and it shouldn't be a privilege, but it is in this nation to have a good education. I also know that there are several brown and black people or people who are poor, who do not have the privilege of the kind of education that I have. How can that be? We move forward and we've also maintained or moved backwards simultaneously, and that simultaneity is something that's a paradox again. We acknowledge a paradox. We could say oh, things are Sonya, you're here. Well, you're a college professor, look how far we've come. Yes, and then I think, yeah, and I don't have any children myself, but my God, children who are black young men, who I fear for their lives simultaneously. It's about acknowledging that and then moving forward with that, and that is that sort of cognitive dissonance. We are doing better and we are doing worse simultaneously. It's not one or the other. It's both. We know we can do better. We have proof that we can do better and that's the good part, but we can't just look at the progress and say, oh good. We have to also look at the failure of progress and say, what also can we do and there are models out there for how we can do better. One thing that I think that is so important about this political climate is that I think it's basically impossible to be neutral, and I think that there is a way that there are times in the history of the United States that it's been possible to be neutral, depending on who you are. Neutrality is easier for some people than others but I think right now, most people are like, yeah, but I'm not neutral about what's going on and it could be that people are feeling like privilege is getting taken away because this place, the United States of America has been built on privileging white men, wealthy white men in particular, and then you just go white men, okay, white, and then you go right and those are just foundational issues. When we recognize that and we start saying, "Okay, so what can we surrender," so that the things that we've progressed on, they're these things, but the things that we haven't progressed on, what can we work on here? What can we give up? What can we give up so that we can really have some equality and some justice? Those are the hard questions. If people started thinking about that every day, the flag of truce is what I have in my mind. What can I do to broker peace? And brokering piece does not mean everybody gets along. Peacekeeping work is hard work, it means that you have to learn how to have difficult conversations constantly, all day, every day, so it takes a lot of stamina. I guess what I'm thinking about is like, yeah, there's still a battle going on. Let's acknowledge it, let's be about our business. The difficult work is difficult work. Let's be about it.
Audience: Hi, I first saw your work at Haverford College in the fall, the Unraveled pieces part of the legacy of Lynching show. It was sort of first how I became familiar with your work. I'm actually from Appomattox, Virginia. I grew up there for like my whole life, my first roller coaster ever was the Rebel Yell actually, like literally ever in my life so I feel a lot of connection to your stories that you were sharing.
Clark: Did you get your first kiss there?
Audience 3: No, no, well unfortunately not, no but I actually was wondering if you could talk more about time and your work because you talked a lot about the labor, sort of how intensive labor is to unravel that flag and how much time it takes to do that and it seems like with the way that you pile the colors after red, blue and white, after you finish the Unraveling project, it almost feels like it's starting new or almost working back in time, to the point before the flag was even made almost but also it's sort of the time passing so you're also obviously looking toward the future and thinking metaphorically about the future. I wonder if you could talk a bit more about time in your work in that way, like thinking about future focused or sort of a way of unraveling things and when working backwards?
Clark: Yeah, so there is obviously this sort of durational presence in the work and whenever one's dealing with history, I'm always thinking about how the history lives in the present, and even the notion that the present doesn't actually exist. We're always in the past or the future. We're never actually in the present. Every present moves into the past immediately, like there is no present. Really what we're in play is that history and future, past and present, and so when we bring those together, I mean, past and future, past and future. That's kind of the only way of sort of marking the present, and I hope to do that in the work. In terms of the durational quality of things, I mean, there's lots of ways of thinking about this. One is that I appreciate the slowness of things because there's something that happens at a granular level, that happens on the ground, that happens in one on one conversations that yields some juice, and to use a cloth metaphor, cloth is essentially and woven cloth is essentially a series of grids, lines going vertically and lines going horizontally. There's a way of thinking that when we meet each other at the crossroads, that's when the work gets done. You think of a cloth of being like all these crossroads coming together, like the cloth doesn't exist and lots and lots and lots of meetings, and the slowness of that doesn't mean that the outcome is necessarily slow. It's understanding that there's something perhaps difficult, perhaps there's something charged in really deeply listening, deeply seeing, deeply investigating, like my friends who I think are really, really, really smart, I try and surround myself with people like Paul, who are much smarter than me, they're people who think deeply and don't actually say that much but when they do say something like my poet friends, they drive me crazy, they take everything I've said to you and give it to you in a haiku, but it's not because they haven't thought deeply. It's because they have thought deeply and they've edited out a whole a whole lot and they've pared down to some kind of essence, but with gathering up a lot of stuff first, before they do that. Some poets work that way.
Clark: We think that in the durational quality of the work, there's something there, like I'm searching, searching, searching, searching, oh there's a story, searching, searching, oh there's the metaphor. Oh, there's my next medium that I'm going to use. Yeah. I hope that answers your question.
Audience 4: Hi there.
Audience 4: I'm interested in the truth flag as propaganda and you gestured at that a little bit but in thinking about how to combat the overwhelmingness that is the battle flag, I want to know a little bit how you see the dissemination plan of the truce flag. I know we got a fragment tonight. Maybe I'm a plant but I understand the exhibit as participatory and as a metaphor for doing the work and encountering it and taking that with you. That's part of the dissemination. What else?
Clark: Yeah, so in my wildest dreams, that whole list of Confederate battle flag, ways that you can consume literally buy the Confederate battle flag, wouldn't it be great if this also existed and just as a one off, right?
Audience 4: Truce flag bikini.
Clark: Yeah truce flag bikini, a truce flag yoga mat – makes a lot more sense to me but just really – doing that one to one, but there's this other part of me that just thinks about the way, I should say and there's this other part of me that thinks about the way that I can't even really quite remember when I encountered a battle flag for the first time, the Confederate battle flag. I don't know, I'm like, maybe it was on TV, maybe it was a bumper sticker in a car that went by and something that a parent said so it signaled something. I think about small gestures and how powerful they can be, just the notion of this, using this example the other day that someone gets on an elevator and there's a mother and child on an elevator and someone gets on, the mother doesn't do anything. Someone else gets on and the mother brings the child closer, and if that person is a person of color, that child has been taught nonverbally because we communicate so much non verbally, nonverbally that that person is unsafe. I have this secret hope that there will be lots of children that come and they go, this must be important because that's a big piece of cloth, and maybe they will remember the first time that they see it, by the time they're our age, I'm older than you. but by the time they're grown ups, they'll say, "Oh yeah, that truce flag is everywhere but I don't remember the first time I saw it." That would be some measure and that's far outliving me. That has nothing to do with me. If all of you start talking about the truce flag, do you know about the truce flag, do you know about the truce flag? Then mission accomplished, you know what I mean? It starts even with the little postcards that are sitting on your chair. It's not hard to get images into the world, especially nowadays, and there's power in images, power in art that way.
Farber: Our conversation's going to come to a close soon. I want to ask one last question, which is about your truce workshops. As a part of your exhibition, you are holding and inviting a series of truce workshops and you just had your first. How was that and what happens in a truce workshop?
Clark: Well, one of the things that we did last night at the Fabric Workshop and Museum was really give the scope of the project, like this is going to happen, this is going to happen, this is going to happen, this is going to happen. Some of the things that we covered today, how I encountered the Confederate Flag of Truce in the first place, all of those sorts of things but we also started integrating issues of like what is a truce? Is that different than surrender? How does treaty fit in there? What is peace? What does that look like? How does reconciliation work? Now? These are the words that were coming up in the conversation. We talked about ways of learning and ways of knowing and thinking about this last question about how do you get an image out into the world? One of the things that we did in this space is that we have these desks, old school desk, wooden desk with a little wooden desk thing that you just sort of slide in and you put your books underneath, and those desks, the wooden desk part has been replaced with another wooden desk that has been etched with the texture of the Confederate truce flag so people can sit there with a black piece of tyvek and do a rubbing on that desk and they can walk away with a white crayon and they can walk away with what some of you got a piece of. They can walk away with this texture, so that's a way of dissemination too. We tried that as well to see how it actually works on people's hands, like when they sit down, how quickly that happens. These are a little different, the takeaways that those of you got, because we stitched these red lines here and they're signed by me, so hopefully that's meaningful to some of you but so one of the things we did in the truce workshop is to get people to actually sit there and make one themselves, at least aways, and they also got to handle the cloth itself to feel the sum and substance of the samples as we made the decision about scale and materiality. It was all linen because the original with linen but all of those kinds of things, because people don't get to touch the really large monumental truce flag. I know you're going to want to but you don't get to. There'll be people watching. I've admitted that if I was in this space and nobody was looking, I would have touched it myself. Maybe I shouldn't have admitted that but I also, one of the things that we didn't ask Paul that I sort of..
Farber: What would you like to talk about and share about this project that we didn't cover in our questions?
Clark: I'm thinking about how this project marks, how a mark of the success of this project differently than any other projects that I've done, and that I might not even live to see its success, that I think about this as planting a seed that hopefully will become invasive. It might become invasive 100 years from now or it might, you know, sort of yeah, there was that show that happened, whatever next. Maybe other artists will pick up and it was like, oh my gosh, there was a truce flag. We need to make work about a truce flag, like that's a way of making things right. There's a lot to mine in this territory, there's a lot of ways that it can be disseminated and so I keep thinking about like, how will I know when it's done, and will I be here to witness it and ultimately, as an artist, you want your artwork to far outlive anything your own life, you know, and I would actually be really happy if I sort of disappeared from this particular artwork because I didn't make the truce flag to begin with. I'm just again, trying to amplify it. If you will help me amplify it, then we're in this together. Well done. [Laughs].
Farber: Sonya Clark, thank you so much for being here for Monument Lab Live.
Clark: It's been my pleasure, Paul, really my true pleasure.
Farber: Thank you. Goodnight.
Clark: Thank you.
An artist of Afro-Caribbean heritage known for addressing race, culture, class and history in her mixed-media works, Sonya Clark draws on everyday materials to investigate how we assign meaning to objects reflecting our personal and collective attitudes: “I was born in Washington, DC to a psychiatrist from Trinidad and a nurse from Jamaica. I gained an appreciation for craft and the value of the handmade primarily from my maternal grandmother who was a professional
tailor. Many of my family members taught me the value of a well-told story and so it is that I value the stories held in objects.” Clark has received numerous awards, including the James Renwick Alliance Distinguished Educator Award (2018), Anonymous Was A Woman Award (2016), ArtPrize Juried Grand Prize (co-winner, 2014), Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (2010 and 2011), and Pollock Krasner award. Her work has been exhibited in more than 350 museums and galleries throughout the world. For 12 years, Clark served as a professor and chair of the Department of Craft and Material Studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Richmond, Virginia. She is currently Professor of Art and the History of Art at Amherst College where she received an honorary doctorate in 2015. Deeply committed to the field of craft, Clark has also served on the board of the American Craft Council (Minneapolis, MN), Textile Museum (Washington, DC), and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts (Deer Isle, ME). Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know is the culmination of the artist’s two-year residency with The Fabric Workshop and Museum.