The radical power of sewing: the artist turns textile activism | art

sewing and textiles have always been 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 an early age.

But it wasn’t until she started learning more about immigrant law and social justice, while also creating art, that she saw the connection between textiles and her passion for political action. She made a career out of it, using textile tools and materials, along with communal workshops, to spotlight that intersection.

The radical power of sewing is the subject of a new exhibit in Los Angeles, on display through September 4. Titled Talking Back to Power: Projects by Aram Han Sifuentes, the show will feature works by the artist such as a sculpture made up of safety pins; quilts made from clothing scraps she collected during interviews with immigrant garment workers; and conversation-inducing protest banners made of fabric.

A woman sits at a desk, surrounded by fabrics and other textiles.  At her feet under the desk is 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 as the fashion world grapples with issues from worker exploitation to environmental damage. Sewing is often dismissed as a feminine and domestic act, but the reality is that garment workers — often immigrant women, people of color or prisoners — power a multi-billion dollar global industry. Sifuentes said she sees a clear “absence of recognition as to who is now doing the sewing and clothing work in this country”, and hopes her work can change that.

For example, her US Citizenship Test Sampler Project, a project first founded in 2015, turns the classic embroidery sampler, a traditional tool for needlework teaching, into a method of empowerment and critique. Non-civil participants made samplers during workshops, and some of these pieces can be seen in the exhibition, with information about who made them and in what year. The samplers sell for $725, the price of applying for US citizenship, and the proceeds go to the person who created the piece.

A cloth image of an anonymous woman in a pink ruffled dress is stitched onto a rectangle of white.  In the top right corner is stitched 'Karina, 28, 2014' and over the image: '53.  What is a promise you make when you become a US citizen?  - give up loyalty to other countries'
The US Citizenship Test Sampler Project is turning 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 are the words: '55.  What did Martin Luther King Jr. do?  - fought for civil rights, worked for equality for all Americans.
Samplers are made by non-citizens and sell for $725, the price of an application for US citizenship. Proceeds go 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 examining the historical experiences of immigrant garment workers. In one gallery, said Laura Mart, curator of Skirball, a ’90s Hamish Amish Immigration Quilt from the Hamish Amish Quilters refers to “immigration stories of Jewish Americans as made by their descendants.” Many Jewish immigrants who came to the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s worked in the clothing industry, Mart said, and the quilt’s placement over Sifuentes’ work makes a clear connection to her work.

In addition, “Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants and female activists were very important in advocating for unionized workplaces in the garment industry,” Mart said, referring to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 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 scraps from her parents’ dry cleaning business sewn into a mandala (a reference to the artist’s Buddhist culture).

“Of course I’m going to use this medium because at its core, for me, and my personal life experience, it’s about my identity as an immigrant of color,” she said of her upbringing to inform her work.

Sifuentes is known for making her political art interactive, and the Skirball show includes an ongoing project titled Protest Banner Lending Library, which invites people to come together to design fabric banners decorated with political slogans.

Under the guidance of Sifuentes, 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 for someone else to use. Visitors to the Skirball exhibit can view and return a banner when they have finished using it at a protest or demonstration. There will also be monthly workshops.

A blue and gold cloth banner has the words 'Undocumented and unafraid' in block yellow letters.
The Protest Banner Lending Library invites people to design their own political banner, which they can then donate for others to view and use. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer

During a recent member preview, a museum visitor viewed a banner protesting the war in Ukraine. He wrapped it around himself, like a cloak, and walked around the room with it for the rest of his visit.

“What’s so interesting about Aram’s work is that the artwork itself is more than the object,” says Mart. “It’s the experience. It’s the participatory aspect of it. It’s the activist aspect of it. And it’s the community aspect of it.”

In previous 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 soon as they leave the room, encouraging participants to consider marginalized groups and reimagining sewing as a tool to speak out.

“We can come together, make our voices heard and have these banners available for people to check out and be sort of allies or co-conspirators,” Sifuentes said. †[They can] carry the voices of the vulnerable communities and people who do not necessarily feel safe to attend a protest.”

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