Sonya Clark: Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know
PhiladelphiaFabric Workshop Museum
March 29 – August 4, 2019
Sonya Clark illuminates the profound entanglement between our current moment and the Civil War by putting her body on the line. In Reversals, which plays on a loop in one of the galleries, Clark, wearing a faded prairie dress, kneels and washes the gallery floor coated with the dust that she collected from Philadelphian monuments to the founding fathers. Before hushed witnesses, she repeatedly wipes the floor with a rag bearing the Confederate flag, revealing words that form the Declaration of Independence. This performance speaks in multi-layers. At the immediate level, Clark associates the Confederate flag with contamination while using her work to demonstrate the invisible labor required for “equality.” Within this reframing, Clark addresses both the intergenerational traumas that remain and their concealment through the perpetuation of a colonized history. Additionally, through her domestic gestures and tools (washing with the Confederate rag and bucket) she clears space for an alternate narrative, using body memory to unlearn conditioned racial hierarchies and divisions.
Clark’s project Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know is an exercise in omitted history—what would happen, she asks, if we valorized the symbol of surrender rather than the more ubiquitous Confederate flag? The truce flag was a white dishcloth waived by a lone soldier sent by General Robert E. Lee to General George A. Custer in order to begin negotiations for surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.1 By making the truce flag enormous (the flag is 15 by 30 feet), Clark argues for its monumentality, challenging the narrative omissions at the root of Antebellum identifications. As we have seen with the usage of the Confederate flag as an ad hoc symbol for white supremacy, these attachments are powerful motivators within a belief system. While the truce flag is indicative of a desire to end the devastating Civil War, the Confederate flag is a symbol of rebellion and separation. It gains power from a narrative of a wronged woundedness. This historic belief conveniently forgets the moment of truce, which was sought and brokered by General Lee.
Truce was a necessary act to end an internal war that cost both sides over 620,000 lives, which is more than any American conflict in history. Add an additional 876,000 casualties (wounded, captured, missing) and its socio-cultural trauma would reverberate through generations.2 Clark’s installation allows us to reflect on how the nation has dealt with this trauma and the internal divisions it has perpetuated. This is especially evident in the valorization and resurgence of Confederate heroism, which has continued to separate this country on multiple socio-cultural levels without necessarily addressing or healing the depths of this intergenerational trauma. Tilting the fulcrum of historical memory towards truce would foreground the work of reunification.
Since the Confederate flag continues to be visually ubiquitous, Clark matches its dissemination with her piece Many, featuring 100 regular-sized dishcloths laid out on a wooden platform. These flags, woven by the museum, aim to refocus the historical narrative by granting access to the truce flag, which, unlike the Confederate flag, lacks symbolic replication, contributing to its cultural erasure. The original dishcloth is kept in the archives of the National Museum of American History, hidden from the view of most of the public, while the Confederate flag is readily available in many consumable products. Clark’s assemblage attempts to counter this imbalance of cultural dissemination.
Clark’s installation also works to rewire and re-associate cultural memory by enlisting the physicality of the body. The second part of the installation is pedagogical. One section invites museum visitors to make their own versions of the truce flag by making rubbings of the flag while they sit at school desks with laser cut versions of the original. Another section has rows of looms set up where visitors can learn how to weave the dishcloth’s waffle pattern. The weavings are saved to construct flags which will be used as part of a touring exhibit. These physical acts not only produce additional flags but include the visitor in regarding alternate modes of revaluation. Through the gestures of rubbing (an ephemeral memorial) and weaving, visitors process history through their own hands with a new awareness of the colonized mechanisms that are embedded within the dominant history that is usually disseminated. This awareness posits an opening for other forms of reflection and means of approaching the larger project of reunification. This decolonized space of assessment allows for the depth of contemplation that is necessary to unpack a long history of cultural division and intergenerational trauma
Clark physically washes away the mystique surrounding the Confederate flag and reincorporates the truce flag into public memory through specific forms of labor. The dishcloth is imbued with a new sense of symbolism and worth that transcends its mere utility. It becomes unique through its newfound relationship with history. More importantly, it shows that patriotic symbols don’t have the permanence that they seem to assert, but can be changed as new forms of socio-cultural awareness surface. Truce is needed to acknowledge the continued trauma of a history of violence.
- Rubenstein, Harry, R., “The Gentleman’s Agreement that Ended the Civil War,” What It Means to Be American, April 3, 2015
- “Civil War Facts,” American Battlefield Trust. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/civil-war-facts