The radical power of sewing: the artist turns textiles into activism | Art

Sewing and textiles have always been a part of the life of the artist Aram Han Sifuentes. Her South Korean immigrant parents ran a dry cleaning business and she repaired her own clothes from a young age.

But it was only when she began to learn more about immigrant justice and social justice while making art alongside that she saw the connection between textiles and her passion for political action. She went on to make it a career by using textile tools and materials along with joint workshops to put this cross in the spotlight.

The radical power of sewing is the subject of a new exhibition in Los Angeles that looks forward to September 4th. The show, titled Talking Back to Power: Projects by Aram Han Sifuentes, will include works by the artist, such as a sculpture composed of safety pins; duvets made from leftover clothes that she collected during interviews with immigrant clothing workers; and conversational protest banners made of fabric.

A woman is sitting at a desk, surrounded by fabrics and other textiles.  At her feet under the desk stands a large green alien head made of fabric.
Aram Han Sifuentes, an immigrant from South Korea, lets her experience influence her art. Photo: Tori Soper Photography / Courtesy of Aram Han Sifuentes

The exhibition comes while the fashion world struggles with issues from exploitation of workers to environmental damage. Sewing is often dismissed as a feminine and domestic act, but the reality is that garment workers – often immigrant women, colored or imprisoned – run a billion-dollar global industry. Sifuentes said she sees a clear “absence of a recognition of who is doing the sewing and clothing work right now in this country”, and hopes her work can change that.

For example, her US Citizenship Test Sampler Project, a project first established in 2015, makes the classic embroidery sampler, a traditional tool for teaching needlework, a method of empowerment and criticism. Non-bourgeois participants made samplers during workshops, and some of these pieces are in the exhibition with information about who created them and in what year. The samples sell for $ 725, the price of an application for U.S. citizenship, and the profits go to the person who created the work.

A fabric image of a faceless woman in a pink ruffled dress is sewn on a rectangle of white.  Sewn in the upper right corner is 'Karina, 28, 2014' and across the image: '53.  What is the promise you make when you become a US citizen?  - abandon loyalty to other countries'
The US Citizenship Test Sampler Project turns classic embroidery into a method of empowerment. Photo: Jayson Cheung / Courtesy of Aram Han Sifuentes
A rectangle of fabric is printed with the image of Martin Luther King Jr.  In faint embroidery the words are: '55.  What did Martin Luther King Jr. do?  - fought for civil rights, worked for equality for all Americans'.  Top right is sewn: 'Magali Almada, 42 years old.  old, 2014 '.
Samples are created by non-citizens and sell for $ 725, the price of an application for U.S. citizenship. The profit goes to the person who created the piece. Photo: Jayson Cheung / Courtesy of Aram Han Sifuentes

Talking Back to Power also includes works that build on Sifuentes’ themes by exploring the historical experiences of immigrant clothing workers. In a gallery, Skirball curator Laura Mart said, a 1990s Hamish Amish Immigration Quilt by Hamish Amish Quilters refers to “immigration stories about Jewish Americans made by their descendants.” Many Jewish immigrants who came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries worked in the apparel industry, Mart said, and the location of the quilt across Sifuentes’ work provides a clear connection to her work.

In addition, “Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants and female activists were really important in their advocacy of unionized jobs in the apparel industry,” Mart said, referring to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the subsequent formation of the International Ladies ‘Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).

Sifuentes’ work ultimately connects the political with the personal: safety pins, a piece that took years to produce consists of found objects and remains from her parents’ dry cleaning business, sewn into a mandala (a reference to the artist’s Buddhist culture).

“Of course I want to use this medium because it’s absolutely central, to me and my personal experience, is about my identity as a colored immigrant,” she said of using her upbringing to inform her work.

Sifuentes is known for making his political art interactive, and the Skirball show includes an ongoing project entitled Protest Banner Lending Library, which invites people to meet to design fabric banners adorned with political slogans.

Under Sifuentes’ guidance, participants learn new techniques with tools such as sewing machines and irons at hand. They can keep their banners or donate them to the library so others can use them. Visitors to the Skirball Exhibition can check out a banner and return it when they have finished using it at a protest or demonstration. Monthly workshops will also be held.

A blue and gold fabric banner has the words 'Undocumented and not scared' in yellow block letters.
Protest Banner Lending Library invites people to design their own political banner, which they can then donate for others to check out and use. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

During a recent membership premiere, a museum-goer checked out a banner protesting the war in Ukraine. He wrapped it around himself, like a cloak, and walked around the room with it the rest of his visit.

“With Aram’s work, it’s so interesting that the artwork itself is really more than the object,” Mart said. “It’s the experience. It’s the participation aspect of it. It’s the activism aspect of it. And it’s the community aspect of it.”

In earlier versions of the lending library, Sifuentes said people exchanged information about future protests and shared what their chosen slogan meant to them. The banners take on a life of their own as they leave the room, encouraging participants to consider marginalized groups and re-imagine sewing as a tool to say no.

“We can come together, make our voices heard and have these banners available so people can check out and in a way be allies or conspirators,” Sifuentes said. “[They can] carry the voices of vulnerable communities and people who do not necessarily feel safe participating in a protest. “

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