Sonya Clark marks slavery history at Second Street Gallery

Sonya Clark’s “Encrusted” considers Abraham Lincoln’s role in black history through a sugar-coated $5 bill. Courtesy of the artist Sonya Clark’s “Encrusted” considers Abraham Lincoln’s role in black history through a sugar-coated $5 bill. Courtesy of the artist

Sonya Clark’s “Bitter, Sweet and Tender,” currently on view at Second Street Gallery, features sculpture, textiles and photography Clark has created, found or had fabricated. These objects limn a potent narrative encompassing Clark’s personal history and the troubled history of the U.S. and Caribbean centered on the use of people as commodities, examined through the lens of sugar production. Clark’s family hails from Jamaica, where sugarcane was, and continues to be, a major crop.

Sugar, along with cotton (in the American South), were the major drivers of the slave trade. “Sugar fed so much of the global economy,” says Clark. “The only way it could feed that global economy to the degree it did was by enslaving people and having them provide free labor.” Though slavery was abolished in 1838 in Jamaica, growing and harvesting sugarcane continues to be a grim reality for those laboring in the fields.

Many of Clark’s objects are painful to look at and consider. Some, like the “Confederate Battle Flag,” are obviously so. Others, like the “The Journey,” a length of gold thread on a spool that measures the distance between Ghana and Virginia (miles scaled to inches), require more attention to parse out.

Clark began unraveling Confederate flags because she was interested in seeing what it would mean to bring this fraught symbol down to its threads. Last year, in response to the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War, she did an unraveling using a flag made from cotton (for obvious reasons). That flag could be completely unraveled because of the way a cotton flag is made. But, the aptly named “Unraveled Persistence,” a nylon version, which features a printed image, manages to retain the symbol and the flag’s shape even after all the weft threads have been taken out. So while Clark is doing the same action with both flags, the messages in the two pieces are very different.

“Monumental Cloth (old)” and “Monumental Cloth (new)” present two contemporary versions of the dishrag that was used as the flag of surrender at Appomattox. The original dishcloth was subsequently divvied up; half is in the Smithsonian American History Museum and other portions of it were distributed around the South. “That’s the flag we should be celebrating,” says Clark. “The Confederate Flag of Truce. That’s the piece of cloth and the symbol that brought our nation back together.”

“The Price” forces us to confront the commodification of humans in today’s economic terms. Working with her studio manager and assistant, Clark came up with an amount that she would command as a 48-year-old woman with craft skills. “We decided to take out the fact that I’d probably be someone who would want to try to escape, so as to make me more valuable, but still it’s only the price of a nice car, not even a fancy car,” says Clark. “And I would be owned for life. It was very uncomfortable for them [her manager and assistant] to do. And I told them, ‘It shouldn’t be comfortable.’

“It’s this ironic thing because…having slaves would be like having a luxury item, and having many of them would mean you were quite wealthy, right? Instead of having one Lexus, you’d have 10, or 50, and then the wealth breeds more wealth because of the free labor that the enslaved human beings were providing.”

The showstopper may be the bolt of McHardy tartan made from hand-woven bagasse (sugarcane fiber). It commands attention as a marvelous piece of emotionally charged craftsmanship that alludes to intertwining bloodlines. The tartan is Clark’s family’s; her maternal Jamaican great-grandmother married a man of Scottish descent in the 1870s. The piece weaves together the discarded sugarcane fibers, as well as Clark’s family history. As the bolt of woven cloth brings these ancestral threads together, it also simultaneously succeeds in unraveling certain preconceived racial ideas.

“Obviously, making an heirloom for my family is very, very close to me,” Clark says of the piece. “There’s earth from my family’s homestead in one vessel and there’s another that is holding indigo-dyed, handspun cotton that I’ve had since my very first trip to West Africa in 1989. So that piece means a lot to me.”

For Clark, the seminal piece is “Encrusted,” a $5 bill coated with crystallized sugar. “Bitter, sweet and tender, I feel like they’re all in that piece,” she says. By encrusting the bill with Lincoln’s visage on it, she’s drawing on sugar’s preservative qualities, trying to uphold what he was trying to do, even as there were challenges and complications surrounding it. The money is, of course, tender, but the circumstances surrounding Lincoln—the Civil War, his assassination and the failure of his reconstruction plan—are tender, as well. There’s also bitterness there. “We’re hardwired to believe that something bitter is poison,” says Clark. “But it also might be something medicinal that has healing properties.

“One of the things I wanted to bring to light in the show is the embedding of our past in our present,” she says. “That’s what I was doing with ‘Rebel Yell.’ It’s a roller coaster I rode as a child. …Here are all these brown and black kids going down 95 to get to King’s Dominion to get on this roller coaster and have a good time. It did not occur to any of us, much less our parents, that that roller coaster was named for the Confederate battle cry. I think it’s really interesting to bring to light that embedding. The repercussions of slavery—how much wealth we have in this nation because of the enslavement of people and how much it still replays in our present, in our subconscious. So I’m trying to bring some of those subconscious things into our consciousness so that we can actually dig at the roots of this troubled history and attempt to right the ship.”

Her voice and perspective are critical right now in our national dialogue. “Looking at what’s happening across the country and with this upcoming election, I would say, ‘Maybe we’ve taken some steps forward, but whoa, maybe we’ve taken some steps backwards,’” she says.

Clark’s bitter, sweet and tender work helps us understand where we have been. It is only then, armed with this information, that we can move in that forward and ultimately redemptive direction.

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