Interrogating the Past: Sonya Clark Interviewed by Scott Turri

The unraveling and retelling of history.

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Sonya Clark, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Woven replica of the Confederate Flag of Truce, 2019. Photograph by Carlos Avendaño.

In Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know, Sonya Clark’s current exhibition at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, she returns to the American Civil War and its aftermath. In doing so, Clark confronts and attempts to dismantle many of the binary constructs concerning race that permeate the United States. Although Clark’s brand of political art relies on using and acknowledging the power of symbols, it is based on archaeological methods as she digs deep into various layers of history and uncovers how subsequent narratives have been constructed. In Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know she utilizes the power of metaphor by elevating the truce flag, specifically the humble dishcloth used by the Confederate Army to surrender to the Union forces and put an end to the Civil War. She reweaves it on a monumental scale so it can be seen across our current social and political battlefields perhaps in an attempt to replace the divisive symbolism of the Confederate battle flag. By reenvisioning, repositioning, and reclaiming the symbols of systemic racism, Clark is simultaneously unraveling these histories and piecing together a new narrative for a more hopeful future.

—Scott Turri

 

Scott Turri Do you see your role as an artist as one who is asking questions and/or reflecting or one who is actively engaged in bringing about social change?

Sonya Clark Both of those things. In order to move forward, one has to ask questions; one has to interrogate our past; one has to interrogate the way we tell history; one has to interrogate what is left out of history; one has to interrogate whose history is told and whose history is not told; one has to engage how histories are taught, and that begins with asking questions. Historians don’t go in saying, “I know.” They say, “Let’s find out.” I think that artwork can be powerful when it leads the viewer with a question rather than an answer. Sometimes I think work can do both. When I step out of my making role and think about how I engage with artwork, I realize that a piece lives longer with me when I am left with an itchy question, because I am in dialogue with it.

ST So you’re not just getting hit over the head with it. You can fully engage with an artwork if it’s asking questions as opposed to just trying to give answers.

SC Even if I have very specific intent with artwork, I strongly believe that it has the ability to be both a mirror and a sponge: a mirror in the sense that metaphorically artwork has this reflective surface in which viewers can find something of themselves, and a sponge in the sense that it can also absorb all the stories, all the reflections, all the readings, so that none of them are wrong—they are all part of the engagement with the work. Work shifts in the context of the world. The power of art is its ability to hold metaphor in such large capacity.

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Sonya Clark, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Woven replica of the Confederate Flag of Truce (detail), 2019. Photograph by Carlos Avendaño.

ST One of the more difficult parts of being a politically engaged artist is making work that can cross over and impact those who hold an adversarial position to that being espoused. And if that doesn’t happen, then the message is obviously only being received by those who already embrace the artist’s views. You seem to be addressing this by using the Confederate truce flag in your exhibition at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. Do you consider how audiences will receive your message? Do you think about how you can reach those who hold views in opposition to you, if it’s even possible to reach them?

SC I have to hope that art has the ability to go far beyond me in order to reach someone. Here is a historical artifact, a humble piece of cloth that was originally designed for a domestic space, but was repurposed as a truce flag, a surrender flag. So already you have a designed object whose meaning shifted due to its context. And now what I am doing is taking that context and saying: Let’s make a monument out of this, because we have to attend to truth and reconciliation. The United States as a nation still has a lot to address and redress when it comes to the way that we are dealing with the legacy of white supremacy. Maybe a Confederate history buff would be interested in someone bringing something forth from Confederate history? We’ll see. My purpose in this is actually to tease out the complexity. What is the truce flag? What is the surrender flag? What does it mean to call a truce? What does it mean to call surrender? As the war ended at Appomattox, the surrender happened with this dishcloth. So one might question whether the war ever ended, because we are still engaging the legacy of inequality and injustice in brutal ways. We just lynch differently and enslave differently now, but it’s not that lynching and enslaving people ended—it just got rebranded. My first degree is in psychology, and this part of me wonders what it would mean if people were even aware of this Confederate flag of truce. Why don’t people know about it? This is the thing that ended the war, yet we only know one of the battle flags. We know it because of the propaganda of the Ku Klux Klan. We know it because of the backlash of white supremacy when the war was lost. We know the Confederate battle flag because of the upsurge of the entrenchment of white supremacy. If children and adults and historians and musicians and poets and artists and your grandma and your niece knew this white cloth, what would that mean psychologically to our nation to know this cloth as opposed to the cloth of battle? 

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Sonya Clark, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Reversals (detail), 2019. Photograph by Carlos Avendaño.

ST I think that’s a good point. It is not something that a lot of people would associate, or even know about, actually.

SC People don’t know it, and it’s not so hidden, Scott. I found it at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History when I was doing the Artist Research Fellowship there about eight years ago, and it was next to Abraham Lincoln’s top hat. So why do we know Lincoln’s top hat but not the truce flag? One could make the argument that a truce flag is just a white flag, so why would you need to know it? But this truce flag has a very specific texture and some design elements that do identify it. One could say that the reason we don’t know it is that history, or history tellers, don’t want us to know it, or propaganda on the Confederate battle flag superseded knowledge of the truce flag, or the war isn’t actually over. Do you see what I mean? There are so many ways to answer this question. I am interested in the questions that will engage, and I am interested in the answers that it will bring forth. I really doubt that white supremacists are going to be happy about a truce flag being made at a monumental scale.

ST (laughter) Yeah, I think you are right.

SC But I feel like it has to be done and that we are trying to do history in 360 degrees. We are not trying to do it through just one narrow lens, because the narrower the lens the more likely that the history is lost or just incorrect.

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Sonya Clark, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Many, 2019. Photograph by Carlos Avendaño.

ST I doubt that your work will be able to have much influence on white supremacists. But hopefully it can influence people who are somewhere to the left of that faction—somebody who might be thinking about these issues and who is willing to reexamine their beliefs.

SC There is something so powerful for me about the humility of this cloth—that it wasn’t designed for war, but for the domestic space. Women would donate their ballroom gowns, because that was a lot of cloth, to be made into battle flags. When you think about war you think about it as this masculine endeavor, but women have a lot to play within that.

And I often think about this history when it comes to truth and reconciliation, of people who claim their pride in the South, of just how many lynching photographs there were, how many postcards there are, and just the idea of killing a human being as sport or entertainment. I don’t hear people saying, “Oh, that’s my uncle,” or, “That’s my grand-uncle in that photograph.” You don’t hear that in common conversation—pride around that. I’m sure there is pride around it, but it’s not common conversation. So there is something to be worked out about the psychology around that—not only the psychology of the injustices, and the brutality, and the terrorism, but also the psychology of the terrorists and their families.

In my unravelling pieces, where I stand with people and they unravel the Confederate battle flag with me, I never know who is going to be standing next to me. I have had conversations with people who would say things like: “This is taking so long. Why don’t we just cut this flag into pieces, or burn it, or shred it, because of the time it takes?” Over the course of two hours, with fifty people standing next to me, one at a time, we would get through maybe half an inch. It is impossibly slow, and so that becomes a metaphor for the kind of work that needs to be done.

One of the things that interests me is that the Confederate battle flag, by design, was made to be seen from across a field, but the truce flag just needs to be a white cloth. So, because it was a dishcloth, it goes back to the metaphor I was using earlier about art being able to absorb all of these stories. It is literally a cloth that is made to be absorbent, and it has a very specific weave structure and texture. The design is minimal, but its structure is very intentional for its function. When we are talking about the battle flag, often we are not talking about cloth. The Confederate battle flag can be a bumper sticker, and there is no cloth involved in that. It’s a much more lasting monument in a way because people can replicate it. We could take down all of the Confederate monuments, but people still can replicate the Confederate battle flag.

Sonya Clark: Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know is on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia until August 4.

Hailing from suburban Philadelphia, where he spent his formative years, Scott Turri now calls Pittsburgh home and has become enmeshed in its regional art community. He has written for New Art Examiner, BOMB Magazine, and Afterimage, and is currently concentrating primarily on painting and experimental animation. He is represented by James Gallery. Along with these pursuits, Turri is also an educator and holds a full-time lecturer position in the Studio Arts Department at the University of Pittsburgh.

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