Southern Symbols: History Or Hatred?

The Speed Museum will host a two-day event examining the country’s conflicting emotions over Confederate memorials.

By Steve Kaufman

This weekend, The Speed Art Museum will tackle one of the most vexing issues roiling the country: What should we do about monuments, memorials, statues, plaques and the like commemorating Confederate figures of the Civil War?

With two back-to-back events, the museum will address both the intellectual and emotional aspects of retaining or destroying these vestiges of a particularly painful era of American history.

Douglass Bourgeois – American Address, 2006, oil on panel, 20 x 16.75 inches.

On Friday, October 13, The Speed Art Museum will host a full-day seminar, “Southern Symbols: Remembering Our Past and Envisioning Our Future,” a public discussion of the cultural nature of historical “symbols,” and especially these symbols of the great national scar remaining from the Civil War.

The next day, artist Sonya Clark will host her performance piece, called “Unraveling,” in which she and anyone who wishes to join her will pull apart a Confederate flag, thread by thread, while they quietly and thoughtfully share their emotions about what the exercise means.

The two events come at the very end of a special 27-week exhibition at the Speed called “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art,” assembled by Miranda Lash, the Speed’s curator of contemporary art, and Trevor Schoonmaker, her counterpart at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art.

The collection was compiled using various popular cultural references and forms—artwork, photography, music, antiques, collectibles, commercial signage, advertising, diner and restaurant menus. “We wanted to address what we mean when we talk about ‘The South,’” says Lash. “We wanted a show that would approach the idea of the South as a question, rather than as a fixed answer. We opened the exhibit to artists from all over the country, to generate a national conversation.”

She said it has been the Speed’s best-attended show since the museum reopened in March 2016. More than 20,000 visitors have seen the exhibit.

“It’s hard to think of a show as presenting more doorways for more diverse groups,” says Lash. “Police, minorities, the LGBT community, students, women…so many found a way to plug in.”

And then, in the middle of the exhibit’s stay at The Speed, public events took over, widening the conversation and raising the volume. A violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August brought attention again to the Confederate monuments around the country. Monuments were taken down not only in the Deep South, but also in Brooklyn, Boston, Washington D.C. and Lexington.

“Just as we were preparing this exhibition, Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared the removal of four monuments in New Orleans,” says Lash. “This was a national discussion we wanted to participate in.”

“I don’t know of another country that has erected monuments to the losing side of a civil war,” says Stephen Reily, the Speed’s interim director, who is himself a child of the Deep South.

Sonya Clark will perform “Unraveling” at The Speed Art Museum on October 14 at 2 p.m.

With funding from the Andy Warhol Foundation (allocated for research toward public conversation among historians and artists), the Speed will be flying in nine artists and historians to lead “Southern Symbols,” the day of discussion and analysis.

Beginning at 10 a.m. on October 13, Dr. Catherine Clinton, Denman Professor of American History at the University of Texas at San Antonio, will convene a panel on “Historical Context and Recent Events” that includes Dr. W. Fitzhugh Brundage; William B. Umstead, distinguished professor and department chair of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens, assistant professor, department of history at Queens College, City University of New York; and artist Sonya Clark, who’s also a distinguished research fellow in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University.

After lunch, Lash will moderate a discussion, “Contemporary Decisions: What Kind of Memorials, Markers and Names are Appropriate for the Future?” with a panel that includes Dr. Jason Johnson, assistant professor at Trinity University, San Antonio; New York artist and sculptor Nari Ward; and Jessica Ingram, assistant professor in fine arts and photography at California College of the Arts.

At 3:30 p.m., Spalding University’s Community for Peace and Spiritual Renewal will lead a series, “Talking Circles: Finding Connections Through Courageous Conversations,” in which all attendees are invited to participate and share their thoughts.

At 6 p.m., Dr. David W. Blight will deliver the keynote address, “Lost Causes and Causes Not Lost: Confederate Memorials, Then and Now.” Blight is a professor of American history and director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University. He will discuss why the Confederacy in its various memorial manifestations never seems to go away and why nearly all debates or struggles over monuments and memorials are about the present.

On October 14, starting at 2 p.m., Clark will conduct her “Unraveling,” a painstaking two-hour thread-by-thread dismantling of a Confederate flag. One by one, attendees are invited to sit with Clark, pull at the thread and discuss their feelings with her.

“She conceived of the de-threading in honor of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War,” says Lash. “She sees the slowness of the entire process as a parallel to the labor of unraveling symbols in contemporary society. Meanings do not change overnight.”

Lash says Clark draws a parallel to the labor of picking cotton, but also to the labor of deconstructing our understanding of the South.

While Clark has held several of these “unravelings,” Lash says it’s the first time she’ll be performing the piece since Charlottesville.

Local writer Minda Honey will also lead a post-experience discussion and writing workshop until 4:30 p.m.

“We’re not holding a hearing on what symbols ought or ought not be torn down, either here in Louisville or anywhere else,” Lash explains. “But we can talk about history, about why they were put up, what kind of visual culture they created about the South and what kind of public art we could be proud of.”

Reily is proud that the museum is the site for such important discussion. “Right now in America, there are some really bad places to have these hard conversations, or places that don’t move the conversation forward,” the interim director explains. “The museum feels right now like a place that can do this. I think it’s because art presents an alternate way to enter the conversation. There are a lot of ways to talk about issues that do not help us. But a museum can go right to the heart of those tough conversations and make us feel better, whereas so many of these conversations make us feel worse.”

While the Southern Symbols discussions are free, there is a seating capacity of 300, and attendees are encouraged to reserve their places online at speedmuseum.org. Attendees can also preorder lunch from Wiltshire Pantry.

Participation in “Unraveling” is included with the price of general admission and a “Southern Accent” special exhibition ticket.

For more information, visit speedmuseum.org or call 502.634.2700.