Installation view of Sonya Clark’s “Unraveling” (all images courtesy Speed Museum)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Last Saturday was not the first time Sonya Clark has deconstructed a Confederate Flag. She has performed Unraveling twice before: first, in June 2015 at the now-defunct Mixed Greens gallery in New York City and then at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, in October 2016. Yet even though this gesture has been enacted twice before  once within the context of the same exhibition, Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art the performance of Unraveling at the Speed Museum on October 14 clearly holds a new significance; this was the first performance under the current presidential administration and since the country has found itself embroiled in debate over the presence and ramifications of Confederate imagery in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer.

Whereas previous iterations have coincided with national conversations about racism and violence — as when she first performed the work days before a white supremacist massacred a predominantly black prayer group in a Charleston church — this iteration comes at a time when racists feel newly emboldened to display their bigotry and have even received endorsement to do so from the heads of the federal government.

At the same time, the violence enacted in the name of white supremacy in Charlottesville and other cities seemed to have catalyzed the dismantling of symbols of white supremacy across the United States, an effort that has long been fought for in cities across the nation, including here in Kentucky and in Richmond, Virginia, where Clark has lived and worked for many years. While Clark began performing this gesture right around the time activist Bree Newsome removed a Confederate symbol from the South Carolina statehouse by force in an act of civil disobedience, the act is now a part of a larger movement through which state and local governments are dismantling these objects out of a sense of civic duty.

In light of current events, Unraveling feels like a perfect metaphor for the project of combatting white supremacy. Like those who have lobbied various state and local governments to have monuments removed, the performance requires both time and collaboration. Members of the audience — which in Louisville numbered near 100 — are invited to approach one at a time and work alongside Clark for 2 to 3 minutes, pulling individual threads from the flag (which, according to the Nasher Museum of Art website, she selected because it was “a high-quality flag woven from thick, sturdy cotton and stitched together to last”).

With each participant, Clark takes a few moments to explain the process she has envisioned for deconstructing the flag and suggests where and how to pull the strands apart. While they work together, she engages with participants, asking them about themselves and what drew them to the project, ending each interaction with an embrace.

Clark stands side-by-side by participants, shoulder-to-shoulder as they pull each strand of the flag and confront the reality it represents. As she has noted,

Racial injustice is something that every American contends with, either consciously or unconsciously, and it’s so deeply embedded in the fabric of our nation […] The word “racism” is sort of like a trigger word; you know, it can shut people’s ears off, shut people down, bring people’s defense mechanisms up. So I’m less interested in that, and more interested in picking apart and undoing and understanding the fabric of our nation and trying to really understand the roots of racial injustice.

The performance of Unraveling is laborious and tedious. Clark deliberately eschews the use of tools in order to concentrate on the physical act of pulling cloth apart with one’s fingers. Even participants with experience working with fiber have difficulty extracting each and every thread by hand. As I watched, one woman noted that her fiber background didn’t help her work any faster or better, to which Clark responded, “anyone who gets one thread out is helping.”

In many ways, it is exactly this frustration and difficulty that makes the work an insightful and sensitive metaphor for combatting racism in our society. Clark’s collaborative performances rarely yield a completely deconstructed flag — although she has previously shown them alongside her performances. Rather, they reveal a sense of the difficulty of such a task, and persistence it requires, while also illustrating how we have progressed. While the act resonates with Newsome’s flag removal, Clark stated to one participant, “this is a very different kind of action […] that’s more about the subtlety of what we do every day” to combat social injustice.

As the performance continues, the piles of red, white and blue thread that previously made up the fabric continue to grow, and the form of the flag becomes increasingly skeletal and abstract the longer she and the audience labor. Thread by thread Clark and her collaborators work together to dismantle this object and the ideology behind it.

At this bleak moment in American history, Clark has said, “[T]he beautiful thing about human beings is that we do have this ability to find ourselves in one another, if we are willing to do the work.” The labor of unraveling the legacy of white supremacy and the Confederacy is arduous, but through collective action and sustained labor, over time there is a possibility it can be accomplished.

Sonya Clark’s Unraveling took place at the Speed Museum of Art (2035 South Third Street, Louisville, Kentucky) on October 14.

Emily Elizabeth Goodman is an art historian and curator based in Lexington, KY. Her research examines modern and contemporary American art, with a focus on women artists and socially engaged art practices....