In September, PAFA acquired “Unraveling” (2015-ongoing) by Sonya Clark for $17,000. The artist is deconstructing (or “unraveling”) the Confederate flag on Nov. 4. | Courtesy Sonya Clark


THE FATE OF CONFEDERATE STATUES in public spaces. NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem. America’s complicated history with race and views about protest and patriotism are dominating the public discourse.

Sonya Clark, a textile and fabric artist, started her own conversation more than seven years ago. Since then, she has been creating works of art with the Confederate flag. Dyeing it black and bleaching it white. Overlaying it with the image of an American flag composed of cornrows and bantu knots made from black thread.

Since 2015, she has been unraveling the Confederate flag. The act is both performance and quiet protest. It’s participatory, too. Clark invites the public to help her, thread by thread, to slowly unravel the cotton cloth of the Confederate symbol.

“One of the experiences that I had when I was doing this, the first iteration of the project, was that people were realizing that they didn’t even understand much about woven cloth and that becomes this interesting metaphor for how much we understand about racial dynamics in this nation,” Clark says in a Nasher Museum podcast.

“They are around us all the time. They couldn’t not be, given our history. But how much do we really understand and how much are we willing to understand, the work that it takes to investigate or to unravel those histories? So the cloth becomes a metaphor in that way. Something very, very familiar that is investigated and picked apart and the slowness that it takes to do that.”

“People were realizing that they didn’t even understand much about woven cloth and that becomes this interesting metaphor for how much we understand about racial dynamics in this nation.”
— Sonya Clark, Nasher Museum podcast

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia acquired more than 28 works of art in September, including a pair of prints by Mickalene Thomas (“Interior: Blue Couch and Green Owl” and “Interior: Fireplace with Blackbird,” both 2016), and “Unraveling” (2015-ongoing) by Clark. PAFA purchased the work, which comprises a performance and resulting fibrous material, for $17,000.


Sonya Clark talks about what it means to be Southern. She gives context and begins to discuss “Unraveling” at (5:56). | Nasher Museum of Art


TO CREATE “UNRAVELING,” Clark starts with an intact Confederate flag and deconstructs a portion of the cloth. Her performance is Nov. 4 at PAFA. The action is part of A Forum on Art and the Election, a weekend of events hosted by the museum. The organizers are posing the following question: “In our current political climate, what is the role and responsibility of artists in responding to a nation divided?”

Clark produced “Unraveling” in an edition of 10. She first performed the work two years ago at Mixed Greens in New York. Curator Lowery Stokes Sims was among those in line at the Chelsea gallery, waiting patiently for her turn to stand side by side with the artist, and help to separate and unravel the threads of the flag. The work was also featured in “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art,” the group show organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University (Sept. 1, 2017-Jan. 8, 2018). Clark performed the work at the Nasher and is doing so tomorrow (Oct. 14) at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., where “Southern Accent” is currently on view. It’s the last day of the exhibition.

The performance is a slow, thoughtful, and deliberative community action. “In an hour we don’t even get through half an inch of unraveling. It takes a long time,” Clark says in the podcast.

“In an hour we don’t even get through half an inch of unraveling. It takes a long time.” — Sonya Clark, Nasher Museum podcast

RICHMOND, VA.-BASED Clark was born in Washington, D.C. She uses fabric, thread, human hair, and combs, to stir history and explore identity and cultural meaning. Clark earned her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. From 2006-2017 she served as chair of the Craft/Material Studies Department at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is currently a Distinguished Research Fellow. She is presenting a solo show, “Sonya Clark: Entanglements,” at the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art in Winston Salem, N.C., through Jan. 7, 2018.

At PAFA, Clark is unraveling the Confederate flag within days of the one-year anniversary of the 2016 presidential election. The nation is deeply divided. The outcome was a tipping point. Racism is at the fore. White supremacy has emerged from the shadows. The performance is intended as a metaphor for “undoing and understanding.”

“Racial injustice is something that every American contends with, either consciously or unconsciously, and it’s so deeply embedded in the fabric of our nation,” Clark said in an interview with the Nasher.

“The word ‘racism’ is sort of like a trigger word; you know, it can shut people’s ears off, shut people down, bring people’s defense mechanisms up. So I’m less interested in that, and more interested in picking apart and undoing and understanding the fabric of our nation and trying to really understand the roots of racial injustice.” CT


In 2015, Sonya Clark first performed “Unraveling” at Mixed Greens gallery in New York. | Video by Mixed Greens


UPDATE (10/17/17): Over the weekend, Sonya Clark performed “Unraveling” for the first time since President Obama left office—unraveling the Confederate flag at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky. (Oct. 14). She shared with me by email her thoughts about the latest iteration of her provocative work.

Although she has performed the piece on three previous occasions, Clark said the experience was different this time, given the political climate under the new presidential administration. She engaged with 60 people over a period of about three and a half hours, standing side by side with them loosening and unraveling the fibers of the flag.

“Conversations with the participants were more charged. There was more of a sense of urgency and realization of what is at stake right now,” Clark said. “[Everyone seemed] perhaps even more painfully aware of how much work must be done given how our history is being reflected and replayed in the present. More people seemed attuned to the metaphor of what we were doing together and why.”


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