The white flag used by Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee to surrender to the Union Army in 1865 and end the Civil War was actually a common dishrag.
Now, an artist has woven a replica of that simple white flag on a monumental scale, 30 feet by 15 feet. Sonya Clark wants people to imagine if the truce flag became as symbolic as the Confederate battle flag.
The Confederate battle flag is instantly recognizable. It’s available on everything from coffee mugs to yoga mats to underwear. The TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard” — with its iconic orange Dodge Charger, the General Lee — made sure it entered pop culture in the most benign way.
As a child, Clark remembers riding a Confederate-themed roller coaster in Virginia called the Rebel Yell.
She recalls it as fun, Confederate theme aside.
“And I would say that’s propaganda,” said Clark. “That’s one of the reasons why we know it. Something about this nation needed to keep pressing in and pressing in and pressing in this battle, and maybe what this battle was fought about is not resolved.”
Clark has been working with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia to create an alternative flag representing the end of the Confederacy, the flag of truce. Few people know what it looks like. Clark herself only recently stumbled upon it while visiting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. She did not understand what it was until she read the label.
The flag is simply a folded dish towel, tea-colored with age, manufactured with a waffle weave (to be more absorbent), marked with three red stripes along the edges to announce that was meant for kitchen messes.
With the help of the Fabric Workshop, Clark has woven a giant version of the truce flag, staying faithful to the color and the weave. Looking at this enormous re-creation, taking up half the gallery space at the facility, is a bit like observing the dishcloth with a magnifying glass.
“It’s a subtlety,” said Clark. “Battle flags are meant to be seen across fields. This dishcloth was made to live in domestic space and absorb things. If we use that as a metaphor, what can this cloth absorb? What can it clean up?”
Clark wants to substitute the Confederate battle flag in the popular consciousness with this flag of surrender and truce.
“I like to think that if we had that as the substitute for the Confederate battle flag, we would be doing the work of reconciliation,” she said. “The things that are very foundational to this nation — genocide and subjugation, along with democracy and peace and justice. We would be talking about how do we deal with this cognitive dissonance, because the Civil War was in part about that cognitive dissonance.”
The second part of the exhibition, in another gallery, is set up like a classroom with old-fashioned school desks retrofitted with new desktops laser-cut with the weave of the truce flag. Visitors are encouraged to use black Tyvek paper and white wax (provided) to make rubbings of the flag.
There is also an arrangement of looms, for visitors to try their hand at creating a few rows of the flag’s waffle weave. Clark believes in tactile instruction to help people better understand and experience the flag.
The exhibition, “Monument Flag: The Flag We Should Know” will be on display at the Fabric Workshop and Museum until August.