LINCOLN — Baby onesies and oven mitts. Shower curtains and tube tops. Toilet seats, Christmas ornaments, fidget spinners, and men’s bikini briefs. That’s a small sampling of the hundreds of everyday objects emblazoned with the Confederate Battle Flag and readily available via Amazon, Walmart, and who knows how many other e-commerce sites. I know because they’re listed floor-to-ceiling on the wall at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, the product of some dumbfounding research by Sonya Clark, whose two solo exhibitions opened here earlier this month.
They’re just words, but so, so many words, printed in no-nonsense typewriter-standard font. The text is a deep blood-crimson; Clark didn’t pick it to evoke the flag’s violent history — not to mention its violent present, with Jan. 6 still fresh in most minds — though it’s hard to see it any other way. No, the color is the stroke that completes the picture. It’s from the Benjamin Moore paint company’s color charts, a long-available shade called “Confederate red.” On the store’s color swatches, it sat right between “raspberry truffle” and “cherry wine” until far too recently, when the company finally renamed it, for better though more likely worse. The color is now called “patriot red.”
That’s the thing about symbols that stick around for ages — repeated, commodified, and diluted of real meaning, time can have a sanitizing effect. (Though not always: When I spoke to Clark, she mused on whether Benjamin Moore had entertained “Nazi red” as a designer shade.) For the Confederate Battle Flag — a symbol of Southern sedition in the Civil War, and an emblem of bondage — its second act as gift-shop tchotchke represents willful ignorance at best. Clark titled her shopping list of battle flag merch, a standalone piece, “Propaganda.”
Ignorance, willful or not, is the foundational theme of “Monumental Cloth: The Flag We Should Know,” one of Clark’s two exhibitions here. (The other, “Heavenly Bound,” centers on the Underground Railroad.)They serve as something of a victory lap for the artist, who last summer was awarded the deCordova’s $35,000 Rappaport Prize. Clark, a professor of art at nearby Amherst College, has made a career of untangling American history to reveal darkness often veiled by pageantry, a practice that brought her close to the battle flag before. “Unraveling,” from 2015, was an audience engagement project where the flag was pulled apart in the gallery, thread by thread, to represent the slow work of undoing deep-rooted racism.
“Monumental Cloth” is less a disassembling than a resurrection, a righting of historical symbolism interred by time and will. In her research on the battle flag, Clark learned it won its aesthetic mantle over another: The Confederate Flag of Truce, offered by Robert E. Lee to Union Army general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Va., in 1865.
The truce flag was a simple, ragged dishcloth — a lowly symbol of defeat, the Confederacy’s end. That alone suggests much about its fade into history, and why the Southern Cross, a talisman for unending defiance, loomed ever larger. As it became insidious in consumer culture, the battle flag was slowly sanitized as a symbol of “southern heritage,” to the blithe exclusion of the enduring cruelty that took place under its banner.
Reckoning with the battle flag’s real meaning is a relatively recent phenomenon. NASCAR, as close to southern religion as you’ll find outside the church, banned the flag from all its properties last June, while online retailers like Shopify have made efforts to purge it from their site. But this is remarkably recent — Mississippi replaced its state flag, which included the symbol, less than a year ago — and only a start. So is it any wonder that “Monumental Cloth” is a place to learn and make corrections?
In that pursuit, Clark crafts a response in proportion to the elision. In the gallery, an enormous, gently angled plinth is covered edge to edge by an outsize version of the truce flag, its waffle-pattern expanded at scale. On each end, three stripes in “Confederate red” complete the work, the humble made grandiose. (Clark, who works mostly in fiber arts, worked out the details as an artist-in-residence at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia.)
As a counterpoint, the flag lies back-to-back with a neat grid of 100 useful kitchen-size versions, more akin to what Lee offered in surrender. In her 2019 performance “Reversals,” seen on video here, Clark puts the truce flag to good use, using it to mop filth off a Philadelphia floor, revealing the preamble to the Declaration of Independence in the process.
It’s an austere display, evoking simple minimalism, unadorned and explicitly utilitarian. But those simple objects carry heavy freight, and there’s nothing minimal about it. “Monumental Cloth” is about choosing blindness when seeing clearly doesn’t suit you — a bleak phenomenon to which we, in this era of “alternative facts,” can relate. The Confederacy lost and surrendered, though by the stubborn symbolism that dominates its narrative, would you ever know it? “Monumental Cloth” offers a remedial history lesson; one gallery is in fact a pocket-size classroom, with the truce flag fluttering on a screen and an invitation to sketch it at a school desk. At the same time, the show’s message is much more complex: that symbols enshrine history, but don’t validate it, and just as often conceal it.
“Heavenly Bound,” Clark’s other stand-alone exhibition here, leaves less to the imagination. On the museum’s top floor, large-scale photo portraits of renowned Black activists — Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass — share walls with names lost to history. They have in common a dignified sense of self-possession. The words “Heavenly Bound” come from lyrics for the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and this small, spare display is a tribute to Black Americans who escaped slavery’s grasp at great danger to themselves and took the Underground Railroad to freedom.
The title piece is a book of bound cloth cyanotype prints, the azure surfaces dotted with flecks. Clark used seeds in the chemical development process, but the evocation is the stars, used by enslaved people to guide themselves northward. Like many Clark projects, “Heavenly Bound” was a collaborative affair; she invited several groups to work on it, including incarcerated men.
Another chillingly cosmic piece is “Constellation,” an ongoing work that inserts Clark into her own tale. On an expanse of white wall, fuzzy knots of black fan out for a negative image of the night sky, which provided both cover and guidance to those fleeing slavery. The knots are made from Clark’s own hair, her DNA on the wall binding her to the flight of ancestors. It reminded me not only of the profound cruelty that underpins this nation’s past, but how close and present it remains.
SONYA CLARK: MONUMENTAL CLOTH: THE FLAG WE SHOULD KNOW
SONYA CLARK: HEAVENLY BOUND
At the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Center, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln. Through Sept. 12. 617-542-7696, thetrustees.org/place/decordova