Tuesday, August 4, 2020
By Laura Mart
Aram Han Sifuentes is a Chicago-based multidisciplinary artist working in fiber, performance, and social practice art. In anticipation of the Skirball’s upcoming exhibition of her work, Talking Back To Power: Projects by Aram Han Sifuentes, I caught up with the artist to discuss her artistic practice and how it’s informed by her experience as an immigrant and, recently, a naturalized citizen; collaboration in art, activism, and the communities she works with; and the ways art-making can help us create a more just and inclusive society.
Laura Mart: Can you tell me about your family’s story, and how your experience as an immigrant and a naturalized citizen informs your worldview and artistic practice?
Aram Han Sifuentes: I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and we moved to the United States when I was five years old. My parents came here without knowing what they would do for work. Luckily, someone in the small Korean community in the Central Valley of California hired them to work at their dry-cleaning business. My parents were able to open up their own dry-cleaning business and they still do this work today. With my mom always bringing sewing home with her, I learned to sew when I was six years old. And it is here, from the beginning, where sewing became political for me and linked to my identity. I will always see sewing from this place, inside this living room, sewing with my family to make a living as immigrants in this country.
My experience as an immigrant drives my practice. My goal as an artist is to disrupt, unsettle, and rupture the dominant narrative to assert, demand, and claim spaces for immigrants. Particularly in this moment of widespread national and international xenophobia and hate, we have a lot to push back against.
LM: Your work exists at the intersection of craft, activism, performance, and social practice. How did you come to use these elements in your practice, and how do these pieces fit together in your work?
AHS: I knew how to sew at a young age but didn’t make or study art until graduate school. For my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, I got a degree in ethnic studies with a focus on immigration policy. I actually thought I would become an immigration lawyer, and along the way I accidentally found art. I found so many things exciting about art, and in particular, I was most excited about the boundaries in art that were being pushed with social practice—where art works toward social change. I saw art as a field for me to work predominantly outside structures of capitalism, white supremacy, and power, and to imagine and create new worlds that center and empower immigrants. It all came together for me when I found art. Sewing naturally became my art-making process because such work is iconic immigrant labor in this country.
In my practice, I confront social and racial injustices against the disenfranchised and riff off of official institutions and bureaucratic processes to reimagine new, inclusive, and humanized systems of civic engagement and belonging. I do this by creating participatory and active environments where safety, play, and skill-sharing are emphasized. And even though many of my projects are collaborative and communal in nature, they incite and highlight the experiences, politics, and voices of individuals.
LM: The three projects in Talking Back to Power involve not only your vision as an artist but also the collaboration and participation of other groups and individuals. Can you talk about the people and communities you collaborate with?
AHS: The communities I most often work with are non-citizen immigrant groups, womxn of color, and those who are disenfranchised and can’t legally vote. The specific communities and participants I engage with depends on each project.
For the U.S. Citizenship Test Sampler project, non-citizen immigrants get together to learn the citizenship test material through the act of sewing and make money from the sale of their samplers. Many of these samplers have been made in private workshops at schools and community centers that serve immigrant populations in various cities in the United States.
In the Protest Banner Lending Library, I engage various communities at different points within the project. I initially started the project by organizing protest banner making workshops for non-citizen and undocumented immigrants who felt too vulnerable to attend protests. In making the banners and donating them to a lending library, it was a way for the people who created banners to still participate in protests and put their words and demands out into the public via slogans. And people checking out the banners can then carry these protest banners with these words into the public in active solidarity and support of these vulnerable communities. The project has since grown to be open to the wider public—creating temporary and lasting communities that support each other in making and in protest.
And in The Official Unofficial Voting Station: Voting for All Who Legally Can’t, I create and ask others to create voting stations that are open to all, but particularly for those who are disenfranchised and can’t legally vote. The art objects and materials used to create these voting stations are made in collaboration with other socially engaged artists, predominantly artists of color from Chicago.
LM: What does democracy mean to you, and how does your work engage with democratic ideals?
AHS: I truly want to believe in democracy, that we can all have power and say in our governance; however, this is a concept sold to us without being real. So, who actually has that power, and who falls through the cracks?
My work confronts the dysfunctions of democracy, and I actively work to rupture damaging Western liberal rhetoric that deems people invisible. For example, my project The Official Unofficial Voting Station pushes back against the rhetoric that voting is for everyone. I started the first iteration of this project in 2016 when I was not yet a citizen and could not legally vote. My ultimate goal is to disrupt this false notion that voting is available to everyone and to make visible the ninety-two million people who cannot legally vote in the United States. In my artistic practice, I am constantly pushing against dominant narratives that oftentimes exclude me, my family, and my communities.
LM: You often mention disenfranchised people in your writings and in the conversations we’ve had together. What does it mean to be disenfranchised? How does your work create space for disenfranchised individuals?
AHS: When I use the word disenfranchised, I mean those who are deprived of the right to vote. In such projects as The Official Unofficial Voting Station, I am creating voting stations for people who can’t vote.
What could voting look like if it were more accessible? What could voting look like if the disenfranchised could be the ones to determine what shows up on the ballots? The Official Unofficial Voting Station functions as a site of empowerment, a site of protest, a site for sharing resources, a site for social engagement and discussion, and a collective art project.
LM: The Official Unofficial Voting Station explores the question: Who is prevented by law from voting in the United States? How did you get interested in this subject and what have you found in your research that has surprised you?
AHS: I started this project in 2016, when I wasn’t yet a citizen and couldn’t vote. Particularly in the 2016 election, I really wanted the opportunity to vote because so much of what was at stake was immigration policy, as we have now witnessed in the last three years. I decided to look into who can’t legally vote in the United States and find out how large these populations are. I was surprised initially at how difficult it was to find research about these groups. After the election, I was able to find that 28.6 percent of the population was not legally able to vote in the 2016 general election. These numbers are constantly shifting due to changes in state-by-state laws and how these laws get enforced. How large this number is also surprised me. This doesn’t even include voter suppression!
LM: What do you hope people learn or take away from your work?
AHS: How can we develop a stronger and more inclusive sense of community, even if temporary, through art making? How can we exercise our full citizenship through art making? How do we push through the margins and put ourselves and our communities, in all our complexities, into the center? In working with and for disenfranchised communities in my art practice, I hope to provide catalysts for radical imagining of what is possible when a system can include us, rather than exclude us and deem us invisible.
Aram Han Sifuentes is a fiber, social practice, and performance artist who works to claim spaces for immigrant and disenfranchised communities. As the daughter of a seamstress and an immigrant herself, Sifuentes often creates work that revolves around skill sharing—specifically sewing techniques—to create multiethnic and intergenerational sewing circles, which become a place for empowerment, subversion, and protest. Her work has been exhibited at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation (St. Louis, MO), Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (Chicago, IL), Hyde Park Art Center (Chicago, IL), Chicago Cultural Center (Chicago, IL), Asian Arts Initiative (Philadelphia, PA), Chung Young Yang Embroidery Museum (Seoul, KR), and the Design Museum (London, UK). Sifuentes is a 2016 Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow and Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Laura Mart, Assistant Curator, is curator of Talking Back to Power: Projects by Aram Han Sifuentes and co-curator of “I’ll Have What She’s Having”: The Jewish Deli. At the Skirball, Mart has curated El Sueño Americano | The American Dream: Photographs by Tom Kiefer; Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico; and Surface Tension by Ken Gonzales-Day: Murals, Signs, and Mark-Making in L.A. She earned a BFA in studio and theater arts from Washington University in St. Louis and an MA in art history from the University of Chicago.