The Significance of Cloth

Sonya Clark: Monumental Cloth-Exhibition “The Flag We Should Know”

Textile Talk Recording- June 2021 Surface Design Association

“Sonya Clark: Monumental Cloth, the Flag We Should Know” an outsize version of the largely-forgotten Confederate flag of surrender was on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 29, 2019–August 4, 2019
Sonya Clark (2019) Detail of Monumental Cloth, “the Flag We Should Know” Woven Linen Threads

Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know, was a timely project and exhibition piece by textile and social practice artist Sonya Clark, which focused upon the seemingly unremarkable dishcloth that played a crucial role in ending the Civil War in the spring of 1865. Pressed into service as the South’s flag of surrender at Appomattox, Va., this cloth became known as the Confederate Flag of Truce.  Featuring six new works created for the exhibition, Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know reimagines the Truce Flag and invites the audience to reconsider the stories our inherited monuments and symbols represent. This exhibition continues Clark’s ongoing exploration of the legacy of cultural symbols and serves as a timely catalyst for dialogue about the scars of the Confederacy and America’s ability to acknowledge and reckon with history, social justice, institutional racism, and racial inequality.

Sonya Clark (2019) Detail of Monumental Cloth, “the Flag We Should Know” Woven Linen Threads

In relation to the history of the truce flag, in the spring of 1865, a seemingly unremarkable dishcloth played a crucial role in ending the Civil War as the South’s flag of surrender at Appomattox. A Confederate horseman carried a humble white linen towel into the lines of General George Custer, near the courthouse at Appomattox. The horseman was sent on behalf of General Robert E. Lee, who was requesting a suspension of hostilities while General Ulysses S. Grant proposed terms of surrender.

Focusing on this Confederate Flag of Truce, Afro-Caribbean American artist (and professor at Amherst College) Sonya Clark (born 1967) explores the legacy of symbols and challenges the power of propaganda, erasures, and omissions through her works. By making the Truce Flag—a cloth that brokered peace and represented the promise of reconciliation—into a monumental alternative to the infamous Confederate Battle Flag and its pervasive divisiveness, Clark instigates a role reversal and aims to correct a historical imbalance.

This is the flag that stopped the bleeding. A dishtowel pressed into service at Virginia’s Appomattox Court House signalled an end to the Civil War. On the orders of General Robert E. Lee, a Confederate soldier waved the cloth, signifying surrender. It was April 9, 1865. The war was over. Hostility, however, lived on—as proven by how few of us today know of the fringed white oblong with threads of red at either end, the Confederate Truce Flag. Everyone knows the Confederate Battle Flag, with its bold saltire and stars. In Monumental Cloth: The Flag We Should Know; textile artist Sonya Clark works in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) to raise awareness of the truce flag and contemplate its significance. Though it ended a war, the little banner could not bandage the wounds inflicted by a four-year conflict fuelled by toxic hatred and deep cultural resentment that cost 600,000 lives. It never became recognised as a symbol of national reunification. The Confederate Truce Flag went to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and was forgotten.

Sonya Clark, in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, Woven replica of the Confederate Flag of Truce (2019). Photo by Carlos Avendaño.

Sonya Clark wants to put the Confederate flag on display. No, not the controversial Stars and Bars, a symbol of slavery that is still embraced in parts of the Southern United States. Clark is instead showcasing a different flag flown by the Confederacy during the Civil War: the one they used to surrender. General Ulysses S. Grant accepted the Confederacy’s surrender and cut the flag in half so that the rider, who had purchased the repurposed dishtowel just days before in Richmond, Virginia, could ensure safe passage back across Union lines. The other half of the flag was given to Elizabeth Custer, wife of General George Armstrong Custer, who donated it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1936. That’s where Clark first encountered it by chance in 2011, when she was wandering the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. “This is the flag that brought the nation back together, but somehow we still know the Confederate battle flag better than the truce flag,” she told artnet News. “There’s an argument to be made that we’re still embattled as a nation. We still haven’t come to terms with racial justice and equality, with the fact that for all our spouting of democracy, we’re still a nation built on the genocide of Native people and the subjugation of African people.”

Confederate Flag of Truce. Collection of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

That the truce flag has been forgotten while the battle flag has been memorialized—defended as a symbol of Southern heritage, rather than denounced as one of a violent conflict fought in defence of slavery—seemed to Clark to be an historical imbalance that she could help correct. To raise awareness of the Confederate truce flag, the artist teamed up with Fabric Workshop team to create no fewer than 101 replicas of the humble cloth for “Sonya Clark: Monumental Cloth, the Flag We Should Know.” That includes a massive one, ten times the size of the original at 15 by 30 feet—a visual manifestation of its historic importance.

Sonya Clark (2017) Monumental Cloth, sutured. Medium: Tea stained, handwoven, linen replica of the Confederate Flag of Truce and silk suture thread. Dimensions: 18in x 3ft.

Description: In April 1865, a dishtowel was repurposed as the Confederate Flag of Truce at Appomattox, Virginia. The humble cloth ended the Civil War. It was divided in half and one half divided further. As Clark noted “The half at the Smithsonian American History Museum compelled me to make it whole, to make it a monument of peace, an antidote to the recurring symbol of the Confederate Battle flag. This divided country is in desperate need of healing its deeply festered wound. That most people do not recognise the cloth that ended the Civil War, is evidence the war never truly ended”. Sonya Clark offered this replica truce flag as a salve to the body of our nation.

Sonya Clark (2019) Detail of Monumental Cloth, “the Flag We Should Know” Woven Linen Threads
Sonya Clark (2019) “These days this history this country”. Unwoven and rewoven commercially printed flags (American & Confederate Battle Flag), 10 x 7 inches.
Sonya Clark (2019) 100 replicas of the humble dishcloth for Monumental Cloth, “the Flag We Should Know” Woven Linen Threads

Within this exhibition there was a series of performances and workshops to aid the understanding of what the exhibition was about, of the woven linen cloth, the narrative and related symbolism. As Sonya Clark noted “We’re surrounded by cloth all the time, and yet we don’t even understand the structure of it,” Clark said in asking visitors to help recreate the truce flag, she was hoping for others not to take for granted their own nation’s history. Seated at the loom, visitors had the opportunity to feel the linen thread and sense the absorbency of the weave, reminding themselves that the dishtowel that became the truce flag was made to clean up mess. It was hoped that this felt sense could be more readily communicated and related with through such engagement. Of fully embracing the irony of disregarding the truce flag which ended the bloodshed and sought unity in favour of coveting the battle flags which promoted war, derision, and separation, to yield heightened difference and subjugation. The power of cloth especially linen cloth has been exhibited to excellent effect to tell a story, to challenge and realign the racial narrative to help name and address the reality today, of continuing divisions. In doing so I have been further influenced through this story, narrative, and context, at how linen cloth can be best exhibited so what is being communicated through the materials in use can be fully heard and responded to by the audience. 

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