It takes a long time to unravel a Confederate flag.
So long that renowned Virginia-based artist Sonya Clark admits she didn’t keep track of the time when she began the process of unraveling one for the first time a few years ago.
A professor, artist, and distinguished research fellow in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University, Clark pulled at the cotton alongside a couple of studio assistants.
Their purpose was to divide it into its most basic threads and segregate them into red, white, and blue piles. The art piece was called “Unraveled.”
Wednesday evening at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, Clark would perform a piece called “Unraveling.” The event was billed as one that blurred “the lines of protest and performance.”
The point of the piece isn’t to finish unraveling but to do the work of deconstructing this symbol of the Civil War, white supremacy, and racism through conversation.
“This particular flag that [we used] at Amherst has been performed three times already — about 150 people have worked on it,” Clark said. “And there’s still plenty of flag. It’s not even close to being completely undone. It’s about the recognition of the slowness of the process. ‘Unraveled’ in the end game. ‘Unraveling’ is the everyday work.”
Her first piece that included a Confederate flag was called “Black Hair Flag” in 2010.
Clark stitched through a painted Confederate flag with black thread. She then cornrowed the thread and used it to represent the stripes of the American flag while Bantu-knotting the stars. In 2015, Clark was invited to see one of the original Confederate flags at a museum in Richmond, Va.
“It’s made out of silk, as many of the early flags were, and because it’s a textile and they want to protect it, it was in a dimly lit room and behind glass,” Clark said. “And when I attempted to take a picture of it, that glass became a mirror so I could see my own self in the image of the Confederate Battle Flag. Also, because of its age, the cloth was coming apart.”
She considered how, if the flag hadn’t been preserved, it would have turned to dust by then. But, she said, its legacy is very much alive. On the sesquicentennial of the Civil War in 2015, Clark saw a news cycle dominated by police brutality and reminders of the high rates of incarceration among black and brown men.
“I wanted to make a piece that sort of acknowledged how far we’ve come in some way or another,” she said. “And how slow the progress has been.”
At each performance, members of the public participate in the unraveling process side by side with the artist. Clark said some people have gotten so nervous trying to unravel the flag that their hands began to shake. Others pull the strands apart easily. The process of undoing the flag becomes a confessional.
“Pulling a thread is a metaphor, but it’s not the same as talking to your parent who had just said something you can’t believe,” Clark said. “Now more than ever I hear from people telling me about how they’re concerned for their children’s lives, mothers being concerned for their black sons’ lives, black people being concerned for their own lives.”
It’s person-to-person work, Clark says. People of all backgrounds and ages talking about their families, their experiences of racism, and what the battle flag brings up in them.
“We need each other to do this work,” Clark said. “Sometimes I can give people the experience of unraveling that is very, very satisfying, where you can pull at lots of threads, and other times the thread will break, and it feels very unsatisfying. And that is in fact the work that needs to be done.”