Artist Aram Han Sifuentes stitches together a communal art experience to give power to those seeking change.
The day after the 2016 presidential election, Sifuentes got out needle, thread and material to craft a protest banner that declared DUMP TRUMP. This was the first in her now ever-expanding protest banner collection, which she operates as a lending library for anyone who wants to borrow — or create — a protest banner. A new exhibition at University Galleries in Uptown Normal features the banners and other works by Sifuentes, now through Oct. 10.
“We Are Never Never Other” brings together for the first time three of Sifuentes’ projects: “Protest Banner Lending Library,” “U.S Citizenship Test Sampler,” and “A Mend.” The artist drew on her experiences as an immigrant from South Korea to create her community-based textile projects. Sifuentes confronts social justice issues as she invites people to join her in creating.
When Gallery Director and Chief Curator Kendra Paitz invited Sifuentes to show her works at the Galleries, the artist said she knew the time was right for this show.
“Right now, particularly with the political climate that we’re in, so much of the rhetoric and attacks are toward immigrants, and particularly immigrants of color. All of these works are coming from that place. I’m an immigrant of color and am working with communities of immigrants to make these works.”
Sifuentes gestured toward a large-scale honeycombed sculpture of denim cuffs.
“For example, 'A Mend' is collecting scraps from seamstresses and tailors in Chicago, of which all of them were immigrants. They came to do this work after having careers like teachers and nurses and businesswomen in the countries where they came from. They left that behind to become seamstresses and tailors here.
So that work talks about the source of work that’s available to immigrants.”
The exhibition also includes “U.S. Citizenship Test Sampler.”
“It’s immigrants coming together to sew the citizenship test questions and answers onto linen squares. We are sewing together to learn the test material, but of course, conversations come about in terms of how ridiculous these tests are. That’s a statement about how do we prove ourselves, how do immigrants have to prove ourselves once we’re here.”
Sifuentes described “Protest Banner Lending Library” as more of a direct response to the current political climate.
“Where we need to make these statements and we need to go out there and protest and fight and talk back to power to assert ourselves.”
It was the collection of protest banners that first garnered Kendra Paitz’s attention. She was determined to learn more about the artist and give her work an exhibition.
“The banners are large, they’re colorful, they have these slogans that are catchy, they’re in your face. They talk about empowerment.”
Paitz discovered that Sifuentes’ other works are more low key and poetic.
“And I thought it was a really exciting opportunity to share the work she’s doing, the way she works with the communities, the variety of really vital, crucial issues that she’s addressing in this work.”
Bringing the three different projects together can help to show how they inform each other, Paitz said.
“You can see how her own ethics and politics play out across various bodies of work, because at times it’s really poetic and subtle, and at times it’s really grabbing you by the face and saying, ‘look at this, listen to this.’”
“I don’t think it’s ever enough to just bring work into the community, but thinking about how people can engage with the issues, whether we’re meeting with classes, whether we’re doing workshops where we’re putting the artists face-to-face with students and community members.”
The gallery has materials available for those who wish to make their own protest banners. Allowing the public in to contribute to her work is appealing to Sifuentes.
“I’m naturally an extrovert,” Sifuentes declared with a laugh. “I’m a people person. I do like to be in my studio and make my own work, by myself. But a lot of times, I want to make with other people. And I want to share how I make with other people; I want people to share how they make with me. Particularly with the issues that I’m making work around. It’s effecting so many people and much of my community. It just made sense to work with other people.”
Working with others can lead to surprises, said Sifuentes. And so it was with the protest banners.
“Initially, I thought that they would just get checked out for protests, and marches and political actions. But actually, teachers take them for their classrooms, theaters have checked them out for their productions. They get used in really surprising ways.”
“We’re really excited about these different ways that we can maybe get people to pay attention to these issues, if they’re not already,” said Paitz. “Or thinking about a different perspective on them that perhaps they haven’t yet begun to wrap their head around, or showing support for people who already know all about this, but this is another way to think about the materials and the message and the ways that we come together.”
University Galleries hosts “We Are Never Never Other” through Oct. 10.
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