At the heart of the nationwide debate over the Confederate flag is a simple fact: Symbols are powerful. With the Stars and Bars representing white supremacy efforts more than Southern pride, activists and politicians across party lines called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds earlier this month. The flag officially came down on July 10, a move that led to protests (largely from a KKK affiliate group) and counter-protests the following week.
Sonya Clark was ahead of the national conversation. In a June 11 performance at New York City's Mixed Greens gallery, Clark didn't just take the emblem of the Confederacy down—she took it apart. A skilled textile artist and the chair of the Department of Craft/Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Clark unwove the Confederate battle flag with the help of over 50 volunteers in an apt metaphor for the work and care it will take to dismantle the racism embedded in the fabric of America. VICE spoke with Clark about the power of symbols, the inspiration behind her performance, and the long road ahead.
VICE: Your work in the recent Mixed Greens exhibition "New Dominion" consists of two distinct but related pieces entitled Unraveling and Unraveled.
Sonya Clark: That's correct. They're both made from cotton-dyed Confederate flags that I purchased. In Unraveled, all of the threads of the Confederate battle flag have been completely unwoven, unraveled, and separated into piles of red, white, and blue. Unraveling is more about the process. Prior to the exhibition, I unraveled about a quarter of the flag; at the opening on June 11, I invited volunteers—about 50 in all—to continue to unravel the flag with me thread by thread.
The diversity of the participants meant that all kinds of people were represented in the unraveling, which was important to me. Some of the notable people involved include Danny Simmons, who is a terrific artist and the brother of Def Jam cofounder Russell Simmons; Lowery Sims, the Curator Emerita of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York; and Olatunde Johnson, a civil rights attorney and Columbia University professor.
Were the conversations that emerged during that shared unraveling part of your larger image for the piece?
There was someone who said to me, "I'm happy to join you in tearing this cloth" and I actually corrected her and explained that we're not tearing the flag, we're unraveling it. The language is specific: unraveling to me is about an investigation about the history of the Confederacy, the history of slavery, and the history of the oppression of people of African descent that is so deeply embedded in the fabric of our nation. The goal isn't to destroy the flag, but to investigate what it means to take it apart.
I think of weaving and sewing as therapeutic acts in the sense that they are repetitive and demand almost meditative focus. But they can also be revolutionary acts, from making your own clothing to counter the learned helplessness of capitalism to the secret messages that may have been left in quilts to help runaway slaves navigate the Underground Railroad. Is unraveling the flag intended to be a revolutionary or a healing act?
I would say that it's both. It's a collective attempt to investigate and understand the history of racism in our nation. It's a meditative act, but it's also a measurement of slowness, of the temporal quality of how far we have or haven't come.
Only a tiny portion of the flag was ultimately unraveled at the Mixed Greens performance.
It was quite slow; even with 50 people participating, only about an inch was removed in over an hour and a half. And that completely unraveled piece? That took weeks to do.
It's an entire flag?
That's correct. Unraveling is recognizable as a Confederate flag, but Unraveled, sitting in piles of red, white, and blue, immediately makes people think of the American flag. What does it mean when you know that the threads come from the Confederate flag, but could be used for an American flag? There's something to be said about the American flag also having roots in the history of slavery. This nation is based on free labor that enslaved Africans provided for hundreds of years, a system predicated upon a psychology that viewed people of African descent as lesser than those of European descent.
What inspired the work?
A major inspiration was all of the recent news of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. Police brutality is not new; black people being killed, abused, and incarcerated is not new; but now it was in the news and there were witnesses.
In 2010, the then-governor of Virginia declared April "Confederate History Month." That might sound appalling, but I didn't have as much of a problem with him dealing with the history of the Confederacy as not acknowledging the other side of the story. It's like when people visit plantations and there's no discussion of slavery—instead there's this idyllic story of the Grand Old South.
In response, I made my first Confederate flag piece, Black Hair Flag. I stitched a painted Confederate flag through with black cotton thread, braiding that thread into cornrows along the stripes of the flag and into Bantu knots on the stars. The cornrows are really about people working the land—I'm first-generation American, and where my folks are from they're called "cane rows"—and the Bantu knots refer to Bantu-speaking people, many of whom were enslaved and brought to the Americas in forced migration.
That piece now lives as part of the collection at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. If they're going to have a Confederate flag in a fine art museum, I'm glad it's a version that incorporates the African-American story. I'm not a spokesperson, but I like to think of my art as being a witness and a document to the conversation that we're having around race.
What do you think about the centrality of the Confederate flag to the current national discussion?
I think it's all part of the unraveling. When I started Unraveled, it was the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the first week of April this year. In completely unraveling the flag I rendered the symbol impotent in a sense. But the symbol is not impotent; it continues to have power. I think that symbols are powerful—that's why I'm using one. People might disagree about what the Confederate flag means to different people, but we can agree that it's a contentious symbol.
Nine people were recently massacred because of the color of their skin and because of a young man who was deeply infected with the sickness of racism. Removing the flag is a symbolic act, and I don't have a problem with that symbolic act. But there is much, much more work that needs to be done.
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