Sonya Clark and a student unraveling the flag.

“I believe cloth is language,” Sonya Clark ’89 said to a crowd of students, faculty and staff gathered in Stirn Auditorium on Feb. 21. “I believe we speak to each other through the clothes that we wear. I believe the ubiquity of cloth is its power,” she said. “We are always in touch with cloth, it is always in touch with us, and by its everydayness, it knows us and we know it.”

A textile artist, Clark uses fiber and other materials, including human hair, to address questions of race, class and culture. After the talk in Stirn, Clark and the audience walked to the nearby Mead Art Museum to perform Unraveling, in which Clark and participants work side by side to slowly dismantle a Confederate battle flag, one thread at a time. “The intent,” Clark says, “is not to destroy the flag but to investigate what it means to take it apart, a metaphor for the slow and deliberate work of unraveling racial dynamics in the United States.” 

The event was part of the Embodied Knowledge Colloquium, hosted by Clark and her husband, Darryl Harper ’90, as part of their residency at the College. The spring colloquium is tied to the “Embodied Knowledge” course, which aims to explore the ways that artists use the body to imbue their work with meaning. Events have included a lecture by art historian Henry Drewal and The Hair Bow Anthems, a collaborative performance by jazz violinist Regina Carter and Clark. Upcoming events include performances by artist Jen Bervin on March 27 and jazz guitarist Freddie Bryant ’87 and Harper on April 5. The latter event will be followed by another performance of Unraveling with Clark.

Rebecca Ford ’18 was one in a line of participants who stood shoulder to shoulder with Clark to work at unraveling the flag. “It’s about the two of you,” Ford said later. “It feels like a personal experience.”

Unraveling by Sonya Clark '89
Sonya Clark ’89, Unraveling, 2015–present. Cotton Confederate battle flag and unraveled threads.

Unraveling, which Clark has performed with some 200 visitors during various installations, is an outgrowth of her work Black Hair Flag (2010), a painted Confederate battle flag with black cotton thread stitched to look like hair. The work caught the attention of a Confederate museum director, who invited Clark to see vintage Confederate battle flags in the Richmond, Va., museum. While visiting, Clark took a picture of a framed, threadbare silk and wool flag, and later saw herself literally reflected in the frame’s glass.

The image inspired her to create Unraveled (2015), a dismantled Confederate battle flag separated into three piles of red, white and blue threads. In Stirn, Clark said she realized the work only held power if the viewer knew the threads were from a Confederate battle flag. “It’s the action [of taking the flag apart] that matters,” she said. That train of thought led to Unraveling, a participatory performance in which Clark is able to “speak with and be with people, to talk about the difficulty of the history of this nation, and how this history lives in our present.”

At the Mead, Clark is exhibiting a new work across from Unraveling. Titled Monumental Cloth (sutured), the work is Clark’s reproduction of the little-known Confederate flag of truce, which she hopes might one day become as well-known as the Confederate battle flag. “On April 9, 1865,” reads the artwork label, “a Confederate solider waving a white dish towel as a flag of truce carried a message of surrender to the Appomattox Court House, beginning the end of the Civil War … By directing attention to the forgotten flag that brought the U.S. together, instead of the battle flag that tore us apart, Clark offers a symbol that we might collectively embrace.”

Reproduction of the Confederate flag of truce by Sonya Clark
Sonya Clark ’89, Monumental Cloth (sutured), 2017. Hand woven linen cloth reproduction of the dish cloth used as a Confederate flag of truce, tea-stained linen, and silk suture thread. 

Unraveling and Monumental Cloth (sutured) will remain on view at the Mead through July 1, 2018. All are invited to participate in Clark’s next performance of Unraveling on Thursday, April 5, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Mead.