In Massachusetts, public discussions of Confederate monuments often seem to forget the commonwealth’s place in the country’s history. While the region doesn’t have memorials to General Robert E. Lee, slavery is still part of its DNA, as evidenced by a problematic statue of Abraham Lincoln with a formerly enslaved man at his feet, which the City of Boston finally removed last year. The danger in confining the history of enslavement and anti-Blackness to the South is that we obscure how the North too benefited from, and continues to benefit from, the abuse and dispossession of people of color; New England was home to its own population of enslaved people as well as its own struggles for emancipation. To begin to face up to this history in its complexity requires delineating the political, economic, and cultural entanglements of the South, the North, and the wider world.
A meaningful reckoning on local ground unfolds at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, in Lincoln, where two exhibitions by Sonya Clark ask urgent questions about power, resistance, and public memory, both regionally and nationally. In works that span textiles, sculptures, photographs, video, and prints, Clark contemplates how popular accounts of the Confederacy’s dissolution and the Underground Railroad influence our perceptions of the present. Whereas the first exhibition, “Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know,” deconstructs the visual culture of the Confederacy, the second, “Heavenly Bound,” ruminates on the experiences of self-emancipated African Americans.
The centerpiece of the first exhibition is Monumental (2019), a horizontal white weaving measuring fifteen by thirty feet that draws inspiration from a fairly unfamiliar historical event. On April 9, 1865, General Lee commanded one of his soldiers to wave a dishcloth near the Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The ordinary piece of fabric functioned as a sign of surrender, ultimately bringing the Civil War to an end. By reimagining the simple dishcloth as a finely crafted, disproportionately large artwork whose presentation evokes that of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian Institution, Clark proposes an alternative to the Confederate flag, a pervasive and persistently harmful artifact of white supremacy.
Throughout the gallery are smaller textile works that similarly explore the significance of the dishcloth. The artist even invites visitors to sit down at one of two looms and participate in the weaving of smaller surrender flags, as if to suggest that envisioning new historical possibilities must be a community effort. Hung on a nearby wall are three such group weavings—finished, but of uneven quality due to the mixed skill levels of their makers—from the first iteration of her show at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia in 2019.
Alongside the textile works are video documentation of and relics from Reversals, a performance at that original exhibition. In it, Clark, a Black woman, wears a period dress and uses a mass-produced dishcloth adorned with a Confederate flag to scrub the floor, which she had covered with dust collected at sites where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution came into being. Her labor gradually reveals, beneath the filth, the “We hold these truths . . .” passage from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence inscribed on the gallery’s floor. For the artist, scrubbing out oppression and weaving new historical narratives are interrelated activities that can contribute to a more just society. Even if Clark’s practice tends to be quite literal, sometimes running the risk of being heavy-handed, the works have a poetic quality that is both accessible and profound.
Two floors above the flags, the handful of new fiber-based works in the second exhibition, “Heavenly Bound,” broadly pertain to the pursuit of emancipation. The most striking is Roots Unbound (2021), a sculpture made from a multitude of taut dreadlocks suspended from the ceiling that join together in a ball to resemble a pendulum. On the floor underneath sprawls a white parachute arranged in the shape of the continental United States—a possible vehicle for escape or a guide to freedom. Evoking the roots and branches of a tree, the work also conveys a sharp sense of pain due to the tender materiality of the human hair, fastened from the ceiling and succumbing to the pull of gravity. Roots Unbound hints at the afflictions and the possibilities (symbolized by the parachute) of life in the Black diaspora in the wake of enslavement.
In addition to scrutinizing national symbols, Clark encourages viewers to make connections with local history. The hallway outside “Heavenly Bound” is decked with blown-up photographs of Black heroes and heroines who worked on or escaped from bondage via the Underground Railroad. Both Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, we are reminded, established Massachusetts as their home base. The deCordova itself is located in close proximity to Lowell and Lawrence, towns where textile mills transformed Southern cotton into high-quality cloth, contributing to a robust nineteenth-century industry that was economically entangled with enslavement. Clark’s exhibitions can therefore texture our understanding of the regional connections among enslavement, emancipation, and industrialization. While the deCordova is known for its site-specific outdoor sculptures, this presentation brings the same monumental power to a more fragile medium that, in Clark’s hands, holds imaginative and liberatory powers.