Sonya Clark

Interview by Lindley Estes
Issue 58 • December 2017 • Norfolk

Her politically charged installations are as visually captivating as they are provocative, but that’s exactly what landed this conceptual fiber artist in the company of modern art heavyweights.

Above: Unraveling | Photo by Zachary Hartzell

Art history is messy. Contrary to what is taught in college courses across the country, no artistic movement marches neatly into the next. So when Kimberli Gant, The Chrysler Museum’s McKinnon Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, designed her first gallery collection, she didn’t present things in that way.

In the McKinnon Galleries' reinstallation called Multiple Modernisms, Gant showcases pieces in the museum’s permanent collection through an examination of differing narratives about the history of modern and contemporary art.

“I wanted this presentation to show the breadth and depth of the Museum’s collection,” said Gant. “It was important to show there are alternate narratives to the history of contemporary art because not all artists or genres were or are embraced within the canon. Art history is fluid and constantly being revised. I want to highlight that.”

Multiple Modernisms pairs internationally renowned artists like Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Alexander Calder along with those of local or regional acclaim. The exhibition also promotes work by female artists and artists of color. A powerful example of such representation is Richmond-based Sonya Clark, an artist rooted in the fiber tradition. Her piece, titled “Unraveling,” consists of a Confederate flag that Clark and more than 50 volunteers have partially unraveled by hand, a process that took hours to perform. This labor, made concrete, mirrors the work that needs to be done to dismantle racial bias and social injustice in our society.

Sonya Clark

“There's something powerful about crafted objects,” Clark said. “It's the evidence of action. With weaving, you have the loom and the hands moving across it. It's the same way with unraveling: it is the evidence of action.”

Clark's work has been influenced by her upbringing and geography. She grew up in Washington D.C. and went to Amherst College for psychology before getting degrees at The Art Institute of Chicago and the Cranbrook Academy of Art. While at Amherst, she was struck by the way objects impact culture. She explored the cognitive dissonance in the way that African slaves, not valued as humans, were more valuable if they had craft skills like weaving and blacksmithing. “This sense of appreciating the embodied knowledge, but not the body, struck me,” she said.

Clark came to Virginia Commonwealth University in 2006 to teach craft at the collegiate level, eventually becoming Chair of Craft and Material Studies. Currently on sabbatical, Clark returned to continue working on pieces affiliated with “Unraveling.” “I'm not sure if I hadn't moved to the seat of the confederacy that this work would have evolved in the same way,” she said. “When I got there, the number of [Confederate] flags surprised me.”

She made her first flag-inspired work in 2010 as a reaction to then-governor Bob McDonnell declaring April to be Confederate History Month. Entitled “Black Hair Flag,” the piece is a canvas flag stitched through with black threads woven into cornrows and bantu knots. “I wanted the whole story told,” she said.

Unraveling | Photo by Taylor Dabney

The piece that will be included in Multiple Modernisms is the original “Unraveling” that was performed on June 11, 2015 at the Mixed Greens gallery in New York City. “Unraveling” has been performed five times now, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, and at Duke University's Nasher Museum. Names of those who participated are on record for each flag, over 300 people for all five flags.

“Cloth is complicated,” she said. “Just as social justice is woven into the fabric of our nation, it is difficult to take apart. I picked a flag that was well-made, cotton. Two and a half hours means half an inch undone.” She said it all feeds into the central metaphor of the piece: it took a long time to build this, and will take a long time to undo. She also has a companion piece “Unraveled” that is completely down to the threads. “Unraveled” is the endgame; “Unraveling” is the work.

Since President Donald Trump was elected, Clark has noticed something about the people working with her on the flags. Many of them ask her how to relate with their friends and loved ones who voted for him, as the political divide seems too wide to bridge. Her response: “I ask, ‘Are you still talking to them?’ That's the work, pulling threads of the social injustice around us.”

Unraveling | Photo by Zachary Hartzell

For Gant, pieces like “Unraveling” are important to the collection because she wants viewers to have a sincere reaction. “I want to know why visitors liked or didn't like pieces,” she said. “Many people think modern art is over their heads, but if a piece makes that connection either way, then the artist has done their job.”

Besides Clark's “Unraveling,” other new perspectives to be featured in Multiple Modernisms include Native American artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith critiquing the 500th anniversary of the European discovery of America, and a mixed media painting of Thomas Jefferson by Titus Kaphar, a complicated portrait of a man with many roles and labels. Gant has taken almost a year to get familiar with the collection and understand what stories the Chrysler is best equipped to tell. Though the installation will be fixed for the next few years, Gant said some pieces will change out, especially in a rotating exhibit in memory of previous curator Amy Brandt who died after an illness in 2015.

Even Clark is looking at new ways to explore symbols. Her recent work has focused not on the Confederate battle flag, which everyone knows, but the Confederate Flag of Truce, used to surrender at Appomattox. A simple linen cloth with three red stripes, it was divided after the war into pieces and now resides in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., at Appomattox, and in Richmond. “The flag that was used to surrender no one knows,” Clark said. “I find that amazing. Perhaps we're still fighting that war in some way.” She has three representations of that flag in her studio: one looks new, one she has dyed with tea to look like a cloth of antiquity, and the last is sutured together to represent a nation still healing.

Multiple Modernisms opened at The Chrysler Museum in November. Curator Kimberli Gant will host a gallery talk on Wednesday, December 12 at 2 PM, admission is free. See more of Sonya Clark’s work at sonyaclark.com.

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