PAFA presents Sonya Clark’s ‘Unraveling’

Philly takes down a Confederate monument

Last weekend, a speaker on the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ (PAFA) Forum on Art and the Election noted that hospital custodians and auto mechanics save more lives than acclaimed cardiac surgeons do. The hallmark of Western culture is forgetting our intertwined identities.

Artist Sonya Clark joins a participant during her performance piece, 'Unraveling.' (Photo by Alaina Mabaso.)

An interactive panel discussion with artists Sonya Clark and Amos Paul Kennedy, moderated by PAFA museum director Brooke Davis Anderson, kicked off a weekend of activities marking one year since the 2016 election. In brief remarks, State Senator Vincent Hughes rejected a “new normal” and urged resistance: “The reality that exists at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not a reality we should allow to exist.”

Meet the stuff-makers

Kennedy, after his first career as a computer systems analyst, traded it all in to become a letterpress printmaker, harnessing a medium that demands a response, even if it’s anger and denial. Clark, a Washington, D.C., native whose roots in Trinidad and Jamaica inform her love for textiles, has had exhibitions in more than 350 museums and galleries on six continents.

Unraveling, her current traveling “performance,” which got its fifth stop on November 4 at PAFA, invites members of the public to work by hand to dismantle a cotton Confederate battle flag thread by thread. Kennedy’s own PAFA exhibition, on display in the café, is a colorful, slyly chaotic assemblage of slogans. He’s drawing attention to the crucial but often invisible work of exhibition installers, who Kennedy says were initially aghast at his request for crooked, layered hanging. He wanted the piece “to be hung as if I had only 30 minutes before the police came.”

Kennedy is dismayed by the way Western culture partitions “artists.” He himself is not “an artist,” he insisted, but a “stuff-maker.”

“‘The creatives,’ ooh, have you heard this term? Obviously, whoever coined that never sat down with a nine-year-old,” he said. In other cultures, makers of everything from nets to masks don’t set themselves apart: they’re makers one day and hunters, farmers, or workers the next, part of a collective whole.

L to R: Amos Paul Kennedy, Sonya Clark, and Brooke Davis Anderson make a definitive judgment on post-racialism. (Photo by Alaina Mabaso.)
L to R: Amos Paul Kennedy, Sonya Clark, and Brooke Davis Anderson make a definitive judgment on post-racialism. (Photo by Alaina Mabaso.)

Kennedy and Clark both underscored our connected lives: almost everything we wear and use is made by someone else, and we owe our existence and rights to those who came before. Hence, honoring janitors and mechanics. How could surgeons work in unsanitary operating rooms? How can a doctor save more lives than a mechanic keeping cars safe every day?

Cut from the same cloth

To Clark, “individuality” is ripe for both philosophical and literal challenge. Even the flag used in Unraveling was manufactured by others.

She personified cloth as “the medium that chose me,” and pointed to our lives swaddled in cloth: “You know cloth and cloth knows you,” she said. It’s “familiar, ubiquitous, quotidian.”

Cloth is also full of stubborn mysteries. Unraveling participants are always surprised by how painstaking and complex it is to unravel cloth — which is Clark’s point exactly, about facing the “accrued meanings” of the Confederate flag. Consider the phrase “fabric of our nation.”

Both panelists pointed out that we get more done when we stand shoulder to shoulder rather than facing each other. Think of the conversations you have walking beside someone else versus sitting across a table. Being side by side sparks physical and psychological connection, and it’s not an accident Clark uses it, one on one, for Unraveling’s participants. She says standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers for the slow and deliberate work of unthreading the cloth leads participants to share personal stories with her.

‘Unraveling’ after the election

At PAFA on Saturday, people waited in line in the museum’s rotunda to commune with Clark and her work. She greeted them one by one, worked quietly with them for a few minutes, and ended each session with a warm hug. At the Friday panel, she said that her record so far (at Unraveling events in New York, North Carolina, and Kentucky) was undoing one half-inch of the five-foot flag with the help of 60 people over three and a half hours.

The line to participate in 'Unraveling' snaked through PAFA's galleries. (Photo by Alaina Mabaso.)
The line to participate in 'Unraveling' snaked through PAFA's galleries. (Photo by Alaina Mabaso.)

Dismantling a Confederate flag can have a dangerous racial charge, said Clark. In one city (she won’t say which), she was obliged to work with armed plainclothes police officers in the gallery. Other security measures were instituted, and there’s even debate about whether the performance is safe to hold at all.

She has noticed one major change in mounting Unraveling after the election: now people tell her she is brave. She answers that they’re brave, too, for joining her. (Every person who lends a hand to Unraveling has their name added to the artwork’s permanent object file.)

She says it’s common for distraught white people to ask her what they should do with family members who voted Trump. Clark said her heritage is Afro-Caribbean and Scottish, but “I walk this earth as an African-American woman.” On the question of cutting off family members over a vote, she asks people to imagine her “all day, every day experience” as a black woman, constantly having to judge if the person in front of her is someone she can speak with or someone who wants to lynch her.

She fondly recalled a white Southern woman she met who referred to herself as “a recovering racist.”

A young black man in the audience asked Kennedy and Clark how they keep going. His grandmother grew up picking tobacco, and his parents weathered the crack-cocaine and AIDS epidemics. He said, “We’re still fighting… I’m only 26, and I’m tired.”

“You clearly come from resilience,” Clark told him.

Kennedy said the young man could always try taking a nap: “Getting tired isn’t the same thing as giving up.” 

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.