Labor of Love: Introducing Chicago Artist Aram Han Sifuentes

It’s a humid morning, and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in Saint Louis’ Grand Center Arts District is wreathed in a bevy of shifting clouds. Sifting through colored fabrics in the museum’s upper gallery, summer artist-in-residence Aram Han Sifuentes prepares for an afternoon community workshop as part of her ongoing Protest Banner Lending Library, launched in collaboration with fellow Chicago-based artists Verónica Casado Hernández, Ishita Dharap and Tabitha Anne Kunkes.

“At the heart of it,” reflects Sifuentes, her hexagonal eyewear framing serious eyes she has playfully edged with eyeliner, “the initial idea of the banner library was for non-citizens to be able to participate in the protest process. But it has become something more than that, more open. Anyone can learn to make a banner to use themselves, or donate to others. It’s become a project to support each other in protest.”

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Born in South Korea and raised in California’s Central Valley, Sifuentes received an M.F.A. from The Art Institute of Chicago in 2013 and has since steadily gained a reputation for exhibition and performance across the globe, from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to the Design Museum in London. Applying fiber arts to interrogate the intersections of immigration, citizenship, racial and gender identity, her praxis is at once public oriented and deeply personal.

“The needle is a political tool,” declares Sifuentes’ artist statement, but for banner-making workshops, one needn’t bring a sewing kit. “We don’t do any sewing now,” she explains. “Instead, we use an iron-on fusible web, a glue that keeps it all together. The banners are easy to make, and approachable to all ages. I basically say, ‘If you can cut, you can make a banner.’”

As someone from the West Coast now living in Chicago, you’ve gotten different perspectives of what it means to be a citizen and activist. Was there an exact moment that the protest banners became a project?
I did a project called the “Official Unofficial Voting Station: Voting for All Who Legally Can’t,” collaborating with over 15 different artists, activists and organizations from all over the U.S. and Mexico.

At the Jane Addams Hull-House, we did an installation with Lise Haller Baggesen and Sadie Woods that was all fabric and protest banners. With all the protests erupting when Trump was elected, I was already making banners, so I just kept making them. I thought, “I really want these to be used,” but also realized that I did not feel safe taking them out and protesting myself—because I was a non-citizen at the time, and I’m a mother. Most of my work had already been working with communities of non-citizens, but then I knew they couldn’t take the banners out, either.

That’s how it became a growing library. We were in this urgent moment, and the banners needed to be used.

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How is the Protest Banner Lending Library related to your earlier work?
I’ve always made work about immigration, and I’ve always made work that’s subversive, bringing to light some of the injustices that we face, and how to fight back in the ways that we can. Growing up, I always thought I’d be an immigration lawyer. I studied Latin American studies, with a concentration on immigration policy, at UC-Berkeley, and have always been political, and invested in empowering immigrant communities.

When did you decide to move from the law to art?
[laughs] Well, a few different things. Studying law and its distinct language, I was having to fight within a very structured, bureaucratic and rigid world. It was a big turnoff. I also had a great ceramics teacher—Richard Shaw—who was amazing, inviting me to everything, giving me a sense of the artist’s community.

How did you shift to fiber arts throughout your career?
I learned to sew when I was six years old. My mom is a seamstress and still does that work today. She used to be an artist in Korea—she’s a painter and ran her own art center. She said to me as a child, “You’re not going to be an artist. I’m not going to teach you how to do that.”

We came to the U.S. when I was five, and my parents started immediately working at a dry cleaner. My mom always knew how to sew, and with all the extra work she was bringing home all the time, she taught me to sew, so that I could help out. I was learning out of necessity.

It took some time, though, before sewing became a part of my artwork. But once it did, things just clicked. I mean, my art talks about immigration, and I grew up inside of a racially aware place in a poor immigrant family. So the process of sewing itself goes hand in hand with the issues I want to talk about.

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Different types of making have long been privileged—that tension between craft and high art. The integration of sewing into art seems rife with that tension.
Yes, but the problem here is, “Who is pushing for that type of integration?” White fiber artists often talk about labor, but it’s kind of ironic, because who are the actual laborers in the garment industry? They are women of color, but they are pretty absent from the fiber-arts field. That’s something I really fight against. People will rail against how fiber arts have been dismissed as “women’s work,” “domestic space,” “sewing circles” and “femininity,” but that’s such a narrow way to think about it. They call that “labor,” and that’s what’s damaging. For so many white women, sewing was, really, a form of leisure. And they were able to do that leisure work because women of color were actually laboring.

Was St. Louis an important place for you to go in terms of the library?
I hadn’t been before, but of course being very aware of the political scene here, it was important to come. Ultimately, what’s most important about this project is that these banners get used. So, thinking about which cities could make the most use of them, St. Louis came to mind.

In Chicago, a good number of banners are about the public school system. In Philly, at the Asian Arts Initiative, a lot of the banners made were about bail and incarceration—with the big prison being right there, close to the Asian arts center. In St. Louis, of course, it’s police brutality and Black Lives Matter.

What does “political” mean for you?
I feel all work is political; even the absence of politics is political. You can only be apolitical or disengaged from politics if you have that choice. But being of Korean descent—from a working-class family, working with non-citizens in immigrant communities—how can I not make political work, especially in this moment? But really, in any moment, because when has immigration policy ever been generous, or given us a break?

Never [laughs].

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With what your mom said to you as a kid about not being an artist, what does she say now?
Well, at first she was upset. She said, “I sewed all my life so you don’t have to. Why are you choosing to?” But, seeing how hard I work, she’s become really supportive and really excited. And in a way, she’s been able to return to art. She hadn’t painted since 1992, the year we moved to the U.S. When I had my daughter, in 2015, my mom started drawing her—taking painting and drawing materials to the cleaners at her sewing desk. In the summer of 2016, I had a solo show at the Chicago Artists Coalition and could use the space however we want. Seeing my mom’s new drawings, I said, “Hey, Mom, do you want your own solo show?” We did a whole show of all her work, from Korea and from here.

Something I really fight against in the art world is how exclusive and elite it is—how closed its circle becomes. Busting that open is really important for me, trying to create inclusive spaces where anyone who comes to a workshop learns the same techniques that I use. In that way, I try to ask these questions, “Who’s an artist? Who’s given that right? Who’s given the opportunity to express creativity?”

This story was originally printed in ALIVE Magazine Issue Three 2018. Purchase a copy and subscribe to ALIVE at alivemag.com/subscribe.

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