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Sonya Clark on the Confederate truce flag and creating a collective work of healing


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: As statues of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were taken down in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend, communities around the country continue to grapple with reminders of Confederate culture.

An exhibit in Lincoln, Massachusetts, at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum features a look at the making of and meaning behind the Confederate Flag.

Special correspondent Jared Bowen of GBH Boston explored the exhibit of Sonya Clark, the 2020 winner of the museum's prestigious Rappaport Prize, as part of our Race Matters and arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jared Bowen: Unfurled as a monumental sea of off-white filling much of this gallery space is a Confederate Flag of truce, or, as the title of this exhibition explains, the flag we should know.

Sonya Clark: I want everyone to know what this flag is, so we can conceive of what truce really means.

Jared Bowen: History has largely forgotten this simple white flag, actually a towel, used by Confederate troops to signal a truce during General Robert E. Lee's surrender in 1865.

The original is now housed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. That's where artist and Amherst College professor of art Sonya Clark discovered it during a visit in 2010.

Sonya Clark: And I have to tell you, I was like, how come I have never seen this thing before? And that question is why there is the show that you're in right now.

Jared Bowen: Haunting this show is a flag that's not seen here, the Confederate Battle Flag, that, unlike the truce flag, survived to become a ubiquitous emblem in this country.

As Clark documents, it adorns all manner of merchandise, from baby onesies to nipple pasties.

Sonya Clark: My thought was, what would this nation be like if that was the image of the Civil War that had endured, that something was surrendered?

But, instead, we have the Confederate Battle Flag in our consciousness, yes.

Jared Bowen: Deeply so.

When Clark and a curatorial team assembled this show in Philadelphia two years ago, they sought out red paint to pop in the exhibition's otherwise neutral palette.

Sonya Clark: Because the Confederate flag of truce has these three minimal red stripes on it, I said, well that's the color we will use.

Jared Bowen: The Benjamin Moore sample they inadvertently selected?

Sonya Clark: Was Confederate red. That paint chip color, Confederate red, lived in between two other paint chip colors. One was called raspberry truffle, and the other was called cherry wine.

In between these two confections is a color that is about insurrection, about enemies of the states, about people who wanted to keep Black and brown people enslaved.

Jared Bowen: Clark has interrogated the legacy of the Confederate Battle Flag both intellectually and physically. In her piece Reversals, she used a dishcloth featuring the Confederate Flag to remove dust covering a section of the Declaration of Independence preamble.

And, in Unraveling, she collaborated with audience members to literally deconstruct the flag thread by thread, a metaphor for the glacial pace of dismantling racism.

Sam Adams, Fellow, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum: I think, when people see the Confederate Battle Flag being paraded through the U.S. Capitol, Sonya's work offers some tools to process, what does that incredibly complicated image mean for us?

Jared Bowen: The deCordova's Sam Adams oversaw both this installation and the companion show, Heavenly Bound. In Constellation, Clark delivers us into a night sky, honoring the guidance it provided enslaved people escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Sam Adams: We're thinking about people whose stories were incredible. They're full of bravery and they're inspiring and deeply important to the foundation of the country, but they're not recorded.

Jared Bowen: However, their history may live in the artist's hair. Here, Clark offers a white sky dotted with Black stars created from her own head.

Sonya Clark: If you pluck a hair, in that hair is this genetic code for all the people who have come before you. So, your hair is both singular, like it's the hair that I grow, but it's also absolutely collective.

Jared Bowen: Clark is mindful of the we throughout her work. She wants museums patrons to become pollinators, taking her ideas with them as they leave, but not before participating.

Sam Adams: All the way to the other side. Just give it a nice push through.

Jared Bowen: Visitors here are invited to help make truce flags on looms in the gallery.

Sam Adams: And then you will send it through again. Take it out. Let your foot off the lever. Bring the beater down. Pull it tight, back up, and then the next pedal.

It's important that we all participate in this collective work of healing of racial and social justice.

Jared Bowen: And how does weaving do that?

Sam Adams: So we do that on a symbolic level by every single visitor who participates will contribute to a collective truce flag.

Jared Bowen: With some deft pedal work, precise shuttling and maneuvering, the visitor weaves their own self into the show, imperfections and all.

Are you mindful that people will leave their interaction with your work or leave a museum exhibition different?

Sonya Clark: Maybe they leave with a question, which actually is more powerful, I think, than an answer, because a question is an invitation to keep thinking. That's actually how the artwork grows and lives beyond me.

Jared Bowen: For the "PBS NewsHour, " I'm Jared Bowen in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Judy Woodruff: Such an important piece of history. So glad we're able to share that.

Thank you.

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