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Sonya Clark, artist who pulls apart racist history, wins deCordova museum’s Rappaport Prize

Artist Sonya Clark won the Rappaport Prize for 2020.
Artist Sonya Clark won the Rappaport Prize for 2020.Diego Valdez

Sonya Clark had a call with the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park earlier this week, which she expected to be the most ordinary of things. Her traveling exhibition “Monumental Cloth: The Flag We Should Know” is due at the deCordova in April, along with her deCordova-produced show “Heavenly Bound.”

“When they called they said, ‘We have some good news,’ ” Clark said on the phone from her studio in Western Massachusetts. “I thought they were going to say they’d found a little bit of funding for the audio piece I’d been wanting to put in the show. And instead,” she said with a laugh, “they came up with this.”

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This is enough to bring a smile to any artist’s lips: The museum was calling to say that Clark had been chosen as the 2020 recipient of the $35,000 Rappaport Prize, an annual award funded by local philanthropists Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport. Previous winners include Daniela Rivera (2019), Titus Kaphar (2018), Sam Durant (2017), and Barkley Hendricks (2016).

Artists can’t apply for the Rappaport prize. They don’t even know if they’re being considered. “It wasn’t even on my radar,” Clark said. She wants to use the money to “pay it forward,” she added. “There are a lot of really, really creative people out there who are struggling. How can I make this generative?”

In Clark, a professor of art at Amherst College, the museum has chosen an artist with a deep commitment to picking apart America’s whitewashed history of racial brutality in slow, deliberate ways. Her work “Unraveling,” begun in 2015, is a public unwinding of the Confederate battle flag, thread by thread, as a response to the police killings of Black people.

If that seems in step with the racial reckoning of the moment as Confederate flags are lowered and monuments fall all over the south, understand, please: There is no “moment,” Clark said. “I find myself reminding people that my work is not timely. This has been the truth of our nation for 400 years. It’s not that the world has caught up with me. It’s that I keep shining a light on the history that is constantly in our present.”

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Under normal non-pandemic circumstances, “Unraveling” is done in public, by the public, alongside the artist herself. “I’ve had museums and galleries say ‘We’d like to have some seats around so that people can witness what’s happening,’” she said, “And I said, ‘No, it’s participatory.’ I don’t want you to comfortably sit by and watch this happen.”

From Sonya Clark's "Unraveling" performance, 2015-present.
From Sonya Clark's "Unraveling" performance, 2015-present.Taylor Dabney

If Clark’s work isn’t timely so much as bleakly timeless, this much, at least, speaks directly to the moment: As protests for racial justice blossom nationwide, a broad coalition across race and generation has gotten off the sidelines, breathing new life into a fight as old as the country itself.

When “Monumental Cloth” arrives here next year, you’ll see another history unraveled. The Confederate flag — recently banished from NASCAR and, incredibly, the Mississippi Legislature — is a symbol popular enough to be found on everything from baby onesies to yoga mats (250 such Confederate tchotchkes appear in “Monumental Cloth” as part of a piece Clark calls “Propaganda”).

Unknown but more significant, Clark thought, was the surrender flag Robert E. Lee offered to Ulysses S. Grant in 1865. It was a dishcloth, white with three red stripes at either end. It was waffle-textured and absorbent, the only thing on hand for the ceremonial surrender.

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Why had it vanished from cultural memory, she wondered, while the battle flag proliferated? Maybe that explained a lot. “Monumental Cloth” is both remedial learning and steadfast corrective: For it, Clark resurrects the surrender flag at monumental scale, then repeats it dozens of times. But just installing the exhibition told Clark how much remained to be undone. In choosing red paint for the walls, she came across a Benjamin Moore sample called “Confederate Red.” “There it was, between ‘Raspberry Truffle’ and ‘Cherry Wine,’” she said with a laugh. “Would they have a ‘Nazi Red,’ too?” (The company, quietly, changed the color’s name to “Patriot Red,” which irks her just as much.)

Still, Clark sees more hope than despair. “I really think we’re in a new chapter now,” she says. “In every shade and color, we’re pushing against the last vestiges of white supremacy, or at least that’s what I hope. And it’s messy and it’s hard and it won’t go easy. But I have to say, without optimism, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. And so here we are.”


Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte