Artist Defies Rednecks and Unravels the Confederate Flag—Let’s Hope It’s for Good

The work offers a metaphor for racial progress.

Sonya Clark, Unraveling, 2015.
Photo courtesy Sonya Clark.

After the recent terrorist attack in Charleston, South Carolina, America is involved in another “national conversation” about race.

This time around, it’s partly a discussion over the Confederate flag. This banner of slavery still flies outside the South Carolina statehouse, as it does in other Southern states, even after the massacre of nine black Americans at a church study group by a 21-year-old white man.

Artist Sonya Clark was already on this issue before the June 19 shooting. Her work Unravelling, now on view at New York’s Mixed Greens Gallery, offers a metaphor for hopes for racial progress via a performance in which she takes apart an actual Confederate flag.

At the June 11 opening, Clark and others worked together to separate the object by hand. Among the 50 or so people pitching in were curator Lowery Stokes Sims and writer/artist Daniel “Danny” Simmons. They worked together for a little over an hour; that labor removed only about an inch of the flag, in a parallel to the seemingly unending fight for racial equality.

It’s on view, partially dismantled, with most of the central X still showing. Nearby is Unravelled—three piles of thread sorted into red, white, and blue—the result of a previous effort in the studio. Both works are situated immediately at the gallery door, making for a dramatic entrance.

Sonya Clark, Unravelling, on view at Mixed Greens, New York. Photo courtesy Mixed Greens.

Sonya Clark, Unravelling, on view at Mixed Greens, New York.
Photo courtesy Mixed Greens.

Clark’s work is part of a show called “New Dominion,” curated by Lauren Ross, inaugural curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), in Richmond, formerly of New York’s White Columns and the Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma. The show includes eight artists living in Richmond; along with Clark are Ben Durham, John D. Freyer, Susie Ganch, Hope Ginsburg, Noa Glazer, Arnold Joseph Kemp, and Richard Roth.

The other works in the show range from Richard Roth’s lovely abstract paintings to John Freyer’s interactive work that centers on ice water; it started when he shared a cold drink with homeless drug users in his neighborhood while talking about addiction and recovery.

The show’s title refers to the state’s nickname, Old Dominion, a sobriquet it earned from King Charles II for its loyalty to the crown during England’s Civil War in the mid-17th century. But it’s a city associated with rebellion, too, having served as the seat of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, making it the perfect site for Clark’s provocative work. She began the dismantling in her studio on April 9, the day that General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.

Clark is the chair of VCU’s department of craft and material studies. She holds an MFA from Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a BA from Amherst.

Museums including the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Wisconsin’s Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Montreal museum of Decorative Arts have collected Clark’s work. She won half the $200,000 ArtPrize 2014 juried grand prize for “The Hair Craft Project,” for which Clark invited a dozen hairdressers to use her own hair as a creative medium, inspired by the notion of hairdressing as “the primordial fiber art.” Canvases adorned with silk thread brought the project into the gallery (see ArtPrize Surprise Lights the Way).

If you’re eager to see more of her work, she’s also part of the current exhibitions “Featured Objects,” at the Bellevue Arts Museum, in Washington; “Fusion Art of the 21st Century” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond; and “Material Fix,” at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Both Unravelling and Unravelled are available to purchase, for $15,000. If someone buys Unravelling, it remains in the partly disassembled state it’s in; if it remains unspoken for at the show’s end, Clark will submit it to further unraveling in future performances, so that it’s eventually dismantled.

“New Dominion” is on view at Mixed Greens Gallery, 531 West 26th Street, New York, through July 17, 2015.

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