The radical power of couture: the artist transforms textiles into activism | Art

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

But it wasn’t until she began to learn about immigrant justice and social justice, while doing art on the side, that she saw the connection between textiles and her passion for textiles. political action. She then made it her profession, using tools and textile materials, as well as community workshops, to put this intersection in the spotlight.

The radical power of couture is the subject of a new exhibition in Los Angeles until September 4. The show, titled Talking About Power Again: Projects by Aram Han Sifuentes, will include works by the artist such as a sculpture made of safety pins; quilts made from scraps of clothing she picked up during interviews with immigrant garment workers; and fabric protest banners that spark conversation.

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 ranging from worker exploitation to environmental damage. Sewing is often dismissed as a feminine, domestic act, but the reality is that garment workers — often immigrant women, people of color, or incarcerated people — fuel a billion-dollar global industry. Sifuentes said she clearly sees “the lack of recognition of who is doing sewing and garment work right now in this country”, and hopes her work can change that.

For example, his US Citizenship Test Sampler Project, a project first created in 2015, transforms the classic embroidery sampler, a tool for teaching sewing, in a method of empowerment and criticism. Non-citizen participants created samplers at workshops and some of these pieces are in the exhibit, along with information on who created them and in what year. The samplers sell for $725, the price of the U.S. citizenship application fee, and the proceeds go to the person who created the piece.

A fabric image of a faceless woman in a pink ruffled dress is sewn onto a white rectangle.  Stitched 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?  - giving up loyalty to other countries'
The US Citizenship Test Sampler Project transforms classic embroidery into a method of empowerment. Photo: Jayson Cheung/Courtesy Aram Han Sifuentes
A rectangle of fabric is printed with the image of Martin Luther King Jr. Lightly embroidered with the words: '55.  What did Martin Luther King Jr do?  - fought for civil rights, worked for equality for all Americans”.  Top right is stitched: 'Magali Almada, 42 years old.  old, 2014'.
The samplers are created by non-citizens and sell for $725, the price of the US citizenship application fee. Profits go to the person who created the piece. Photo: Jayson Cheung/Courtesy Aram Han Sifuentes

Talking Back to Power also includes works that build on Sifuentes’ themes by exploring the historical experiences of immigrant garment workers. In a gallery, Laura Mart, curator of Skirball, said a 1990s Hamish Amish immigration quilt by the Hamish Amish Quilters references “immigrant stories of American Jews as made by their descendants.” Many Jewish immigrants who came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries worked in the garment industry, Mart said, and the placement of the quilt on Sifuentes’ work makes a clear connection with his work.

Also, “Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants and women activists played a very important role in defending unionized workplaces in the garment industry,” Mart said, referring to the Triangle factory fire. Shirtwaist of 1911 and the subsequent formation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. (ILGWU).

Sifuentes’ work ultimately connects the political to the personal: Safety Pins, a piece that took years to produce, is made up 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 basically, for me and my personal experience, it’s about my identity as an immigrant of color,” she said of the use. of his education to inform his work.

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

Under the guidance of Sifuentes, participants learn new techniques with tools such as sewing machines and irons. They can keep their banners or donate them to the library for someone else to use. Visitors to the Skirball Exhibit can view a banner and return it when they’re done using it at a protest or event. Monthly workshops will also take place.

A blue and gold fabric banner bears the words
The Protest Banner Lending Library invites people to design their own political banner which they can then give to others to check out and use. Photography: Robert Wedemeyer

During a recent member preview, a visitor to the museum looked at a banner protesting the war in Ukraine. He wrapped it around himself, like a cape, and walked around the space with it for the rest of his visit.

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

In previous versions of the lending library, Sifuentes said people swapped information about future protests and shared what their chosen slogan meant to them. The banners take on a life of their own once they leave the space, encouraging participants to consider marginalized groups and re-imagine the act of sewing as a tool for self-expression.

“We can come together and raise our voices and make these banners available for people to check out and be sort of allies or co-conspirators,” Sifuentes said. “[They can] bring the voice of vulnerable communities and people who may not necessarily feel safe at a protest.

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