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Revisiting The Work Of Sonya Clark: Unraveling The Confederate Flag

Last year’s massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina renewed the debate over gun control, racism…and the Confederate battle flag that flew outside the South Carolina statehouse at the time.

For Virginia artist and former McColl Center for Art +Innovation resident Sonya Clark, the Confederate flag has long been a part of her work. In a piece titled Unraveling, she unravels a cotton Confederate flag with members of the public in a museum. It’s a tedious task that takes time—which is no coincidence. The piece shows people how long it takes to deconstruct a complicated symbol in American history.

WFAE’s Sarah Delia spoke with Clark around this time last year about that piece. She circled backed with her a year later to learn how her work has been received and to hear what’s next.  

When I last spoke to artist Sonya Clark, it was just a few days after the shooting in Charleston and the debate over the Confederate battle flag flying at the South Carolina statehouse was heated. She was in Italy doing research—she’s a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. We spoke via Skype.

It was a difficult conversation to have as people - Clark included - grappled with what happened in Charleston.

"In order to undo the complexity and the depth of racism in our nation and the way in which it touches all of our lives…to undo it is to understand how it was done in the first place," she reflected a year ago.

And that’s what Clark does with her piece Unraveling which last year was featured in a gallery in New York, and is now in a private collection. 

Speaking with her a year later, she says she’s gotten a lot of feedback about her work. Some of it good and some negative.

"There were people who were really hateful in terms of their response to the work…as if by taking a flag apart thread by thread was tantamount to killing an already dead ancestor."

 This negative response didn’t surprise her, after all she’s unraveling perhaps the most contentious piece of cloth in American history.

The Confederate flag used in Unraveling is cotton, common material used in Civil War battle flags. Cotton itself of course has its own complicated history.

As an African American artist who lives in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, she wondered what it would be like to unravel a nylon flag, a more durable material used in flags today. What resulted from that curiosity was a piece called Untitled, a completely unraveled nylon Confederate flag that hangs limply from a flag pole attached to a wall in her studio.

Even though it’s the same action of unraveling…the unraveling of the Confederate symbol in modern material, sends a different message.

"There was just a different language in the way in which a flag was made, the persistence of the imagery and the symbol. And by the way it’s much easier to unravel a nylon flag than a pieced cotton flag. So in one sense it’s much easier to unravel it and in another sense it remains. The cotton one much harder to unravel but then you don’t know what it is once it’s completely unraveled so there’s this interesting thing that happens there," Clark said.

It’s the same symbol with a different material, and with a different material comes a different voice. The nylon is easy to unravel, but the image because of the modern material has more staying power than the cotton…insert your own artistic interpretation here.

So a year later, Clark is still asking questions about the symbolism and history behind the Confederate flag—and asking the public to do the same.

One thing has changed since the last time we spoke. The Confederate battle flag was permanently removed from the South Carolina statehouse grounds on July 10, a couple of weeks after our initial conversation.

And coincidentally, the flag that was carefully lowered at the South Carolina statehouse and sits in a box in storage waiting to be displayed at the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia, is made of nylon. Just like the Untitled flag that hangs from a flag pole attached to a wall in Sonya Clark’s studio, waiting to be exhibited. 

Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.