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Aram Han Sifuentes explains how she uses art to talk back to power

A photo of Ingrid Barbosa (Left) and Tyler Risteen (Right) making a protest banner, April 5..

By Emma Lyons

Arts & Ideas welcomed Aram Han Sifuentes to speak via Zoom following a protest-banner-making event in Hemenway Hall April 5.

Sifuentes is a Korean-American artist from Chicago. She is a fiber artist, activist, and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Sifuentes began her talk by explaining her goals as an artist – “to disrupt, unsettle, and rupture dominant narratives. To assert, demand, and center those who are commonly othered – particularly for immigrants of color.”

She noted that often artists of color are told that their art is not enough to help make social changes and, as a result, many artists of color begin to believe it and stop creating.

She challenged this statement saying, “Our stories are often not told, actively forgotten and/or

suppressed, perverted, distorted and oversimplified by dominant culture. And through art, we could tell our own stories and truths on our own terms.”

Sifuentes then recounted her story as an artist.

As she spoke, she showed photos of her parents’ hands, explaining how they worked with their hands to make a living in the United States.

Sifuentes helped her parents with their work growing up. “We would all contribute by ripping seams, ripping out bad zippers, sewing on buttons, and mending rips and holes of other people’s clothes,” she said.

She added those moments were when sewing was linked to her identity and became political for her.

As she moved into the second portion of her presentation, she showed examples of 19-century sewing samplers and explained how they inspired her to begin the U.S. Citizenship Test Sampler project.

It began with a sewing sampler she made when studying for the U.S. citizenship test, where she embroidered all of the test’s questions and answers. The finished piece is 8 and a half inches wide and 22 feet long.

She sold it for $680 – the same price as the U.S. citizenship test when she took it in 2016. With the

amount of time and effort she put into the project, Sifuentes earned $2 per hour of work.

After completing her own citizenship test sampler, she expanded the project to other non-U.S. citizens. They would embroider one question and its answer on the sampler, and it was put on sale for the price of their citizenship test.

“Currently, there’s more than 130 completed samplers, and they’re exhibited together to display the collective value of this community of non-citizens,” she said.

She then spoke about her inability to vote for 24 years before she became a U.S. citizen.

She displayed an infographic about who is unable to vote and noted how difficult it was to find the answer of who can’t vote.

Sifuentes then presented photos from her “Official Unofficial Voting Station: Voting for Those who Legally Can’t.”

This project was formed by Sifuentes in connection with the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and set up 25 unofficial voting booths across the United States and Mexico.

“They all took different forms, some more performative,” she said. “This was not meant to be a scientific demographic undertaking, but a series of interconnected gestures meant to empower disenfranchised people.”

In 2020, Sifuentes created “Voting Kits for the Disenfranchised,” which included ballots and a ballot box, along with stickers, wristbands, flyers, and a vinyl record of the playlist played at past unofficial voting events.

Sifuentes then spoke about her art as a form of protest.

She said that since she works with non-citizens, many do not have the safe space to “Talk Back to Power,” “but art can create this space under the guise of creativity.”

She used this motivation to start the Protest Banner Lending Library.

Sifuentes hosts protest-banner-making workshops, where participants are taught how to use fabric to make banners in protest of current events.

“Many of us were making banners because we were moved by the moment. We needed to do

something. We needed to speak up. We wanted them to go out there, but we couldn’t take them out there ourselves,” she said.

So, many people donated their banners to the Lending Library so that those who were able to attend protests could use them, and their messages would still be sent out into the world.

Sifuentes’ Protest Banner Lending Library is an ongoing project and has several locations across the U.S. The student-made banners from the Tuesday morning workshop will be displayed around campus.


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