Art

A Monumental Cloth That Tells a New Truth About the US Civil War

Contemporary artist Sonya Clark asks, “Who said monuments have to be steel?”

Sonya Clark, “Many” (2019) (detail) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

PHILADELPHIA — Yoga mats, decorative throw pillows, beach towels, do-rags, and wedding rings: all objects you can purchase today emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag.

Though Confederate soldiers waved a number of flags, none have become as culturally emblematic and parasitic as the rebel flag we know today. But contemporary artist Sonya Clark is challenging its insidious presence in popular culture.

“Hate and racial discrimination is an easy disease to catch in this nation,” Clark said during a tour of her recently opened exhibition Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know. Even if we can take down statues heralding Confederate generals, she says, the symbol of the rebel flag is “far more pervasive and problematic.” And to this problem, Clark has presented a solution.

Sonya Clark, “Monumental” (2019) (detail)

“What if we moved towards another symbol of the Confederacy?” she asks. “The Confederate flag of truce.”

Years ago, while wandering the National Museum of American History as a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow, Clark came across the massive Star Spangled Banner — a cloth so monumental, the United States’s national anthem is a dedication to its grandeur. But in a separate gallery of the same museum, she came across a new symbol of the Civil War sitting beside Lincoln’s recognizable top hat: the Confederate flag of truce. Clark was bewildered — how did she not know the cloth that had mediated the end of the Civil War?

And so, Clark set off in her exploration of this understated piece of fabric, inciting her mission to educate the rest of the nation.

“What if this were the symbol that endured?” Clark asks. “Where would we be if we had known it since 1865, instead of the KKK rising up with a battle flag?”

“Monumental” (2019) (photo by Carlos Avendaño)

She asks, “Who said monuments have to be steel?”

Clark’s artistic investigation came to fruition as Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know, an interactive exhibition to weave and display hundreds of truce flags at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia.

The original flag, a repurposed dish towel, was used to materially signal the “gentleman’s agreement” that ended the civil war — a term Clark finds emblematic of the white privilege the United States was founded on, in both the North and South. Confederate soldiers, who she often refers to as “enemies of the state,” continue to be celebrated as gentlemanly cavaliers, while the deadly persecution of Black Americans maintained.

But, Clark asks, “Who was hanging from trees just a couple generations later?” Certainly not Confederate soldiers. “It’s still a complicated flag, but a different kind of complicated, with a different kind of goal.”

Sonya Clark, “Many” (2019) (photo by Carlos Avendaño)

Instead of bold stars, the truce flag is made up of hundreds of tiny squares and a few slim stripes, but their conceptual message is just as powerful. “Those three stripes mean everything,” Clark says. Though the truce flag is subtle, its message is just as strong.

To enliven the sober exhibition space, the Fabric Workshop set out to find a shade of red paint that would match the cloth’s stripes. Coincidentally, the closest match, they discovered, was a Benjamin Moore color called “Confederate red” — a telling and disturbing example of the prevalence on the Confederacy in American consciousness and the revisionism that has occurred to normalize the legacy of the Confederacy, and the United States’s history with slavery. The color has since been renamed “patriot red.”

Sonya Clark, “Many” (2019)

Clark’s version of the truce flag stretches 30 feet by 15 feet (the largest woven cloth that Fabric Workshop has produced since it’s opening in 1977), and is displayed on a massive, sloped platform similar to the one displaying the Star Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian. Across the gallery are 100 flags laid out on an identical platform, signaling a mass creation of the little-known cultural symbol. Clark is forging more of these flags into existence, as it falls far behind the well-known rebel flag in terms of material presence.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Clark says, adding that “the US has been in the business of” subjugation and white supremacy for centuries.

Installation view of Sonya Clark: Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (photo by Carlos Avendaño)

Though the end of the US Civil War signaled a theoretical end to chattel slavery, the mechanics of bondage were reiterated through racially discriminatory laws, racial violence, and mass incarceration. In crafting these flags, Clark is doing the work of reconstruction that Reconstruction never did.

The truce flag was, in its original intention, woven as a dishcloth. Its waffle weave was meant to absorb and clean (which, in a deficient way, it did). Now, Clark is utilizing the flag in an attempt to further clean up the history of continued racism which followed.

“How much of our history that is not normally told,” Clark asks, “can be absorbed by a monumental cloth?”

Sonya Clark, Lesson Plan (Confederate Truce Flag) (2019) (detail)
Sonya Clark, Lesson Plan (Confederate Truce Flag) (2019) (detail)

While the upper gallery is contemplative, the lower gallery is active. There, visitors can make rubbings of the flag, retrofitted into the wood of school desks — a nostalgic experience of “becoming intimate with a symbol through touch,” Clark says. “We remember through touch and experience.”

Clark is largely known for unraveling the Confederate battle flag in interactive works — a signature which the artist says now gives her pause when seeing the photos of the flag, a symbol of virulent hatred, disseminated even further, despite the act itself being a powerful experience.

The artist made her first truce flag in her Richmond studio, the very same place where the Civil War’s end was brokered. This shifted her practice from unraveling a sordid history, to weaving an auspicious future.

Sonya Clark, “Reconstruction Exercise” (2019) (detail)

For Monumental Cloth, Philadelphia schools donated a series of looms where participants can contribute to the creation of new truce flags.

A list of objects that you can buy branded with the Confederate flag

There is only one Confederate flag in the gallery — an active choice on Clark’s part to not further disseminate its likeness. In place of material manifestations of the flag, Clark lists the hundreds of objects you can purchase for sale adorning the flag — dishcloths included.

The only instance in which the flag appears was in Clark’s performance on Saturday, March 30. Clark dressed as Ella Watson, the domestic worker made famous through Gordon Parks’s “American Gothic” (1942), to clean the floor with a dish towel printed with the battle flag.

On the tiles of the gallery, the preamble of the Declaration of Independence loops around, covered in dust from Philadelphia’s historic Independence Hall and Declaration House, materializing the historic shrouding of democratic ideals under America’s historic racism and continued legacy of white supremacy. Clark mops up the floor, a symbolic cleansing of the Confederacy, and the preamble becomes more legible as she cleans. Rather than erasing the reality of the Civil War, Clark cleans up the revisionism that has allowed Confederate soldiers to remain memorialized as rebel heroes.

Sonya Clark, “Reversals” (2019) (detail) at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (photo by Carlos Avendaño)
Sonya Clark, “Reversals” (2019) (detail) at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (photo by Carlos Avendaño)

In William C. Anderson’s reflection on the commodification of racial violence through exploitative public memorials which bolster the dissemination of racially violent imagery, he asserts, “We have to counter, defy, and defend against violence; we should not allow it new opportunities to express itself for the sake of art, capital, and consumerism. […] To get to a freeing newness, we need bold, confrontational innovations and not just the exhibitions we’re used to.”

Why create elegies and monuments to something sinister rather than crafting something progressive? This exhibition serves as Sonya Clark’s answer.

A view of “Reversals” prior to the performance. The scene, staged in the same orientation, now shows the dirtied flag.

Sonya Clark: Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know is on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (1214 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107), through August 4.

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