For the past 150-some years, while the Confederate battle flag has monopolized attention with its corrosive symbolism and inflammatory bluster, a different, largely unknown Confederate flag — the Confederate Flag of Truce, which the South used in the process of surrendering to the North — has been quietly waiting for its moment in the spotlight. That moment is now.
Hoping to start a new conversation around the Civil War artifact, textile and social practice artist Sonya Clark has conceived a massive version of the Flag of Truce, measuring 15 by 30 feet — 10 times the size of the original flag.
“Many (detail),” 2019 by Sonya Clark, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Credit: Carlos Avendaño
“The show is asking the question, ‘What if this cloth, the Flag of Truce, was the symbol of the Civil War rather than one of the many Confederate battle flags?'” said Clark, who is also a professor of art and art history at Amherst University in Massachusetts.
Two opposing symbols
In communities across America, the Confederate battle flag continues idealized, often beneath a veneer of Southern pride. But because it was carried by those fighting for the right to enslave black people, it retains inalienable racist connotations. In the mid-20th century, as the Supreme Court declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, the world watched as battle flags rose above government buildings across the South. And just four years ago, when the white supremacist who massacred churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, was pictured holding the battle flag, a debate about removing it from public buildings finally began.
But the flag is still emblazoned on thousands of products, from yoga mats to dog collars. (Clark stenciled a long list of such items on one of the walls of the show.)
A pro-confederate flag demonstrator wears confederate battle flag cowboy boots outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia, South Carolina, June 27, 2015. Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
If “a flag has no real significance for peaceful uses,” as the English writer H.G. Wells once opined, the Flag of Truce is certainly an exception. It’s no great surprise, however, that it isn’t celebrated as a great Civil War memento. It’s a symbol of Southern defeat, after all. And it’s also a towel — the kind of cream-color, waffle-weave linen cloth we might associate with drying dishes. It was purchased by Confederate Captain R.M. Sims in Richmond, Virginia, who then carried it by horseback into Union territory in Appomattox, Virginia, to request a ceasefire, while a defeated General Robert E. Lee negotiated the Confederacy’s terms of surrender with Union General — and future president — Ulysses S. Grant. (Half of the flag now resides in the collection of the National Museum of American History in Washington, where Clark first discovered it.)
Recontextualizing the truce flag
If the original truce flag’s modesty and size are at odds with its significance, Clark’s enormous recreation transforms it into a monument. It’s imposing, stately, and invites contemplation. Woven from linen and decorated with three thin red stripes down the side, it’s a delicate, beautiful object composed of thousands of square spirals. But it’s also so heavy that it could not be hung — an apt metaphor for the subject at hand. Instead, it lies on a wood wedge, echoing the presentation of the original Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History.
“Woven replica of the Confederate Flag of Truce (detail),” 2019 by Sonya Clark, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Credit: Carlos Avendaño
This isn’t the first time Clark has worked with Confederate flags. In 2015, the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, she performed “Unraveling & Unraveled,” during which she slowly unraveled the threads of a battle flag with the help of different participants. At the opening of the new exhibition in Philadelphia, she dressed as the cleaning woman pictured in Gordon Parks’ famous 1942 photograph “American Gothic” and, on her hands and knees, mopped up dust on the floor with a rag printed with the Confederate battle flag. As she cleaned, she revealed the preamble of the Constitution inscribed on the floor.
“Reversals (detail),” 2019 by Sonya Clark, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Credit: Carlos Avendaño
“The performance is a kind of reenactment. And so are the weavings,” said Clark. The act of weaving — the warp and the weft — is about bring two opposing sides together to create something stronger.
Clark doesn’t expect her Flags of Truce to end racism in America, but she does hope they get people thinking and talking about race and inequality.
“There were all of these strides of the mothers and fathers of the Civil Rights movement, yet we still have mass incarceration,” Clark said. “I can be both a college professor and know that my godsons could be shot in the street just for being black. We have a lot of work to do. We don’t get it done by saying, ‘Oh let’s be colorblind, and pretend there’s no color.’ We have to look problems in the face, roll up our sleeves and talk about difficult things.”