Sonya Clark in Philadelphia

by Emily Foster

Still from Reversals, 2019

Fabric Workshop and Museum:
Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know — March 29 – August 4, 2019

African American Museum in Philadelphia:
Self-Evident — May 25 – September 8, 2019 

Sonya Clark’s concurrent Philadelphia exhibitions at the Fabric Workshop and Museum and the African American Museum both engage history and its retelling, hidden storylines, and the deep power of materials. 

The white-bricked, vast space of the Fabric Workshop and Museum is currently home to a monumental—and forgotten—flag. Sonya Clark’s Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know centers around the Confederate Flag of Truce, a real historical artifact (preserved and half of which is currently at the Smithsonian) consisting of a white dishtowel with thin red stripes on its edges, ordered to be waved by Robert E. Lee to end the Civil War. Stepping into the dimly lit space, the flag Clark produced, Monumental, ten times larger than the original dishtowel, is laid bare on an altar of sorts, directly inspired by the display of the Star-Spangled Banner in Washington, DC. Mostly white, though still with the thin red stripes reproduced on either side—a detail Clark said she was “grateful” for during her artist talk because it makes the cloth distinctive—the intricate waffle weave of the flag glistens slightly.

Monumental, 2019

Further along the FWM’s space, on another simple wooden structure, one hundred “flags”, true to the original dishtowel’s size, stand sentry and speak to the reproducibility and ubiquitous nature of a symbol like a flag. The smaller scale of the weave of these flags highlights the tactile experience one would have holding these objects, or perhaps even using them for their original, lowly purpose, while elevating and reiterating the texture of Monumental. The only time within this exhibition that a dishtowel is used to clean is also the only place the Confederate Battle Flag makes an appearance: a video of Clark scrubbing the floor of the FWM, slowly revealing the still-dirty Preamble (“We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal…”) of the Declaration of Independence with a “novelty” Confederate Battle Flag dishtowel.

Many, 2019

The question this exhibition asks is clearly printed on the back wall: “What if this was the symbol that endured?” How do we remember—and confuse—history but with symbols like the Confederate Battle flag, that crossed-x pattern that is so rightfully controversial? As the exhibition continues several floors below, the psychology of remembrance and utilization of symbols is further explored by Clark through a variety of mediums and opportunities for the viewer to directly engage with materials—a decision that feels rewarding after the untouchable but deeply tactile flags on the floor above. Rows of school desks, each fitted with an embossed top with the texture of the Truce Flag, are positioned near black paper and white chalk to create rubbings of the flag. Clark’s concept here is clear: history is also “made” though education, or the choice of what to teach. Clark’s commitment to her audience’s participation in creating and cementing a new standard into history continues past these desks, in the form of many looms that offer the opportunity for visitors to weave their own small section of the Truce Flag. 

Detail from Self-Evident, 2019

At the African American museum, Clark’s interest in the power of materials is even more evident. This exhibition is made up of disparate objects that each have their own conceptual path and narrative, though all of these objects’ stories are laid upon the same foundation of Black history and experience in the United States. A low-lying wall intercepts the entrance to the exhibit, made of bricks each stamped on the front with a single word from the opening of the Declaration of Independence and on the back with the word “schiavo”– Italian for “slave”. Serving as mortar for the wall: Black hair. The United States of America, like many other empires, was built and held together by slavery even while espousing values of equality at its “front”. 

Clark uses hair as an essential material throughout Self-Evident, describing this choice in her artist talk as “DNA being activated.” Nowhere is the hair more “active” than in “Hair Bows for Sounding the Ancestors”, in which two violin bows are strung with straight blonde hair and Clark’s own hair, felted into a loc, respectively, displayed alongside a violin and two headphones playing Lift Every Voice and Sing and Star Spangled Banner. Surprisingly, there was not much difference in the way the recordings sounded, but a world of difference in what it means to “sound the ancestors” for each type of hair.

Detail from Self-Evident, 2019

Several of the other works in the exhibition also play with the idea of silence and noise: inside a constructed room, a piano “plays” Lift Every Voice and Sing by emitting light through punched holes that correspond to notes; on an adjoining wall a small replica of the Liberty Bell is installed with a clapper made of Clark’s hair. These noise-dampened pieces speak to the unknown stories of countless Black Americans, forgotten or shunted aside in the annals of history but still communicated through a collective consciousness. As Clark said in her artist talk, “the earth is not ringing yet” — so these pieces remain silent.

The works Clark created for these two exhibitions are– in her own words– “monuments”, because “they remind us who we are.” Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know and Self-Evident are not only reminders of the still-painful wounds of our nation, they are a call to action, to reexamination, to re-knowing, and healing through education. These two exhibitions are so cogent because Clark is fully aware of the power of objects to absorb our stories– and these are stories that need to be heard. Since the end of the Civil War, Americans have asked, “On what terms is this nation to be united?” We are still grappling with this question today, but with Sonya Clark’s work in Philadelphia, the way forward is a little clearer: listen closely to the past and our ancestors, deconstruct the insidious propaganda that makes up our “history”, find new symbols to rally behind, and always feel unified in hope for the future.

Emily Foster is a Visual Studies major at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and an intern at Title Magazine. Her interdisciplinary work centers around the phenomenology of spectatorship and creating liminal spaces for healing.