Aram Han Sifuentes - Let Us Vote!
Curated by Brandon Bauer
Bush Art Center, Baer Gallery: October 3 – October 27, 2022
St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, U.S.A.
This exhibition brings together works by Aram Han Sifuentes that focus on democracy, citizenship, and political participation. The works in this exhibition manifest the notion of democracy as a contested space in which one can gain a political voice through citizenship, protest, or giving voice to those excluded politically. Sifuentes's work investigates identity politics, immigration, citizenship and belonging, dissent and protest, and racial politics in the United States today. This interview was conducted between the exhibition's curator Brandon Bauer and the artist Aram Han Sifuentes during the Autumn of 2022.
Brandon Bauer: Before we get into some of the specifics of this exhibition's works and themes, I wanted to ask you how you came to art. What were the earliest influences that motivated you to pursue art? Who have been your foundational mentors?
Aram Han Sifuentes: As an immigrant, I have always been interested in immigration policy. I went to the University of California Berkeley for my undergraduate education and studied Latin American Studies focusing on immigration policy. I intended to become an immigration lawyer. There I took art classes for my electives. I wanted to take them for fun. Eventually, I kept taking more and more art classes. Soon I had enough for a double major.
I started taking ceramics courses with Richard Shaw and Ehren Tool. I spent a lot of time in the ceramic studio. Looking back, I see how both mentors influenced my teaching and art-making. Richard Shaw is an incredibly generous educator who always did his work right next to us in the studio. In this way, the classroom became an energetic space of constant making where we would all work alongside each other, make together and collaborate, share works in progress, problem solve in the moment, and become invested in all of the stages of each other's process in making art. Ehren Tool taught me that I could make powerful political statements with art. He is a veteran and throws cups with war imagery on them. He gifts the cups to the public as a way for war to enter the home. For most people living in this country, we do not often have a close relationship with war. War feels distant for most of us. Even though the practice may seem simple, I find the gesture profound. It took me many years to make political statements with my work, but I knew I wanted to become an artist through Richard and Ehren's mentorship.
BB: I find it so interesting that you considered becoming an immigration lawyer but then moved to art. Especially given the intersections I see in your work. Richard Shaw and Ehren Tool sound like wonderful mentors! Can you tell me more about how you moved from that path to becoming an artist?
AHS: As an immigrant, I have always been interested in immigration policy and law. Also, growing up in the Central Valley in California, different types of immigration were evident as one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. From a young age, I understood that these policies and laws directly affect the lives of my community, family, and myself, and often with significant impact. I went to college thinking that I may pursue immigration law. However, the more I learned about law and policy, the less interested I became in it. When I look back, I think it was because I have always had creative and imaginative ideas that weren't supported by these fields. At the same time, I felt so empowered when learning about social practice and socially engaged art. I knew I wanted to become an artist who uses art as a tool for social justice.
BB: You are deeply interested in art's role in social change. Beyond the mentors that you discussed, what led you to this type of work?
AHS: After I decided to pursue art, it took four to five years for me to make the type of work I am making now. Initially, I was creating abstract work in ceramics, painting, and drawing that didn't yet speak about my interests in immigration justice and politics. However, I have always been an avid reader. Alongside my art practice, I constantly read books about race politics, identity, immigration, women of color feminism, and queer theory. So my interest and commitment to social justice has always been there, and it just took some time for it to show up in my art. It wasn't until the first year of graduate school that my art practice started to speak directly about immigration. And this happened through my piece, A Mend (A Collection of Scraps from Local Seamstresses and Tailors). And it took me another year to create the participatory works I am known for now, like the U.S. Citizenship Test Sampler.
It is important to stress that I didn't know my work would look this way. However, I believe art practice is interesting and exciting that way. My practice evolves and develops, and parts of myself and my interests show up in often unpredictable ways. I have learned this about my process: I can't force connections and statements to be made but must trust the things most important to me. What I spend a lot of time thinking about will eventually appear in my art.
BB: How has your family's story, your own story, and your journey to becoming a citizen informed your work?
AHS: I believe art is most compelling when artists make art from their own experiences. My family's story and my story fuel my art. My projects always start with my personal experiences, then I think about how they can connect with others. For example, the project The Official Unofficial Voting Station: Voting for All Who Legally Can't began because I couldn't vote as a non-citizen in 2016. Then I delved into researching who else can't legally vote in the United States during the general elections and found that nearly 90 million people couldn't legally vote in 2016 and 2020. For this reason, the project becomes large-scale. Since its inception, I've collaborated with over 50 artists, educators, students, and organizers and have collected more than 12,000 symbolic votes.
BB: I agree art is most powerful when artists can connect from their experiences. In this way, sewing has become an essential practice in your work. I loved how you discussed this in your lecture to my students as an interpersonal skill developed in your family. Still, you also discuss how sewing is both personal and political. Can you speak about the importance sewing holds in your practice - personally and politically?
AHS: I learned to sew when I was six years old, the year we moved to the United States from South Korea. My parents came here without knowing what they would do for work. Luckily someone in the small Korean community in the Central Valley in California hired them to work at their dry-cleaning business. My father works the machines, cleaning, pressing, spotting, and ironing; my mother hems and alters clothes. My parents were able to open their own dry-cleaning business, and they did this work for 28 years.
During these 28 years, my mom was always sewing – at home and work. My parents worked 12 to 13 hours at work, six days a week, and my mom would still bring sewing work home. We'd sit in the living room after dinner and watch TV as my mom would work on her alterations. Spending time with my mother meant sitting and sewing with her. So, we would all contribute by ripping seams, ripping out bad zippers, sewing on buttons, and mending rips and holes in other people's clothes. This experience is how I learned to sew. 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.
BB: Much of your work has a thread of collective making as part of your practice. I'm thinking of the U.S. Citizenship Test Samplers and the work in the Protest Banner Lending Library projects in particular. How did you come to this form of collective making?
AHS: Looking back, I can see that my encounters with organizing inform this form of collective making. We cannot create social change alone; we must connect with others and build powerful coalitions. When dealing with such an immense and monstrous system as immigration policy, we cannot fight alone. In this way, I feel like I cannot make art alone, that the power is in our collective experiences and call for a more humane system.
BB: I find this form of collective making very democratic in practice. For example, I love how in your monograph, We Are Never Never Other, published by Illinois State, there is a "How To" section for making a protest banner in the manner of the works created for your Protest Banner Lending Library. I love the do-it-yourself, step-by-step skill-sharing of this project. Was this important to you? Did you set out to create a project that anyone can do themselves?
AHS: Sharing knowledge is always important to me. Specifically, with the Protest Banner Lending Library, I share photo tutorials. I recently created a video tutorial made with moCa Cleveland because it is crucial for me to place the skill of making banners in the hand of participants and the public for many reasons. First, many people who can't necessarily attend one of my workshops ask me how to make these banners. These requests come from all over the world. Sharing guides and tutorials online is a way to make this process more accessible. Second, many people tell me they feel intimidated to make banners because they don't know how and aren't artistic. So, it is important to me that these steps are easy. It is also important to me that these are the exact steps and processes I use to create works in my art practice. In this way, I want to make not just banner making but art making more accessible and approachable. Lastly, it is important to me to share steps to make these banners because efforts need to be massive when we think about revolution and political movements. I put out these resources so that as many people can create as many banners as they desire for themselves and their communities.
BB: The works we have selected for the exhibition at St. Norbert speak to issues of participation and disenfranchisement in the political process and how people engage in our democracy even without the right to vote. In this way, the work in this exhibition confronts the promises and dysfunctions of democracy. How did you come to address ideas of democracy in your work specifically?
AHS: This is such an important question. Some of my works, like U.S. Citizenship Test Sampler and Official Unofficial Voting Station: Voting for All Who Legally Can't, initially seem to desire and even aim for access to the idea of democracy. However, it is critical to note that the desire for citizenship and access to voting is not an affirmation of the state. Often, they are more practical. For example, citizenship offers protection and access to social services. Yet, I believe democracy has never been a reality for many of us. When I look at those who can't legally vote in the United States, it becomes clear to me that youth, non-citizens, the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated (depending on the state), residents of U.S. territories (for presidential elections), people without access to IDs (depending on the state), and people deemed mentally incapacitated (depending on the state), can't legally vote. In foundational documents, white male enslavers created democracy in this country and established the status of non-personhood for the enslaved. The initial design of the system was to exclude whole categories of people. At the same time, my projects create alternative strategies of support, such as mutual aid. My projects often ask, how do we support, care for, and protect each other in a system that doesn't include us and doesn't serve us?
BB: That idea highlights democracy as a contested space, where the political voice for many is not a given. I believe for a democracy to thrive, it must be dynamic. Change and adaptation are how democracies grow and expand to include those once excluded. To form "a more perfect union," to quote a famous phrase, to work toward that vision of justice and equality for all. I love how your work demonstrates this contested space in which one can gain a political voice through citizenship, protest, or giving voice to those excluded politically. You highlight these processes of disenfranchisement and exclusion and the means to make one's voice heard even in the absence of citizenship. What has this meant to you as someone who has worked to gain citizenship and the right to vote?
AHS: Democracy is spoken about as a reality in the dominant culture. There is the idea that we can all vote, participate, and have a say in our government. However, this is far from reality. Democracy is an abstract concept. It is not a reality. There are more than 90 million people who cannot legally vote. Laws are enacted to keep certain people, often people of color, from having a say. As mentioned before, citizenship for me wasn't about an affirmation of the state. It was a practical decision that I had the privilege even to consider. I obtained citizenship to stay in this country without fear of being forced to leave my home and family. As someone now with citizenship, I find it more critical to highlight disenfranchisement and to work with the safety of my privilege to fight for citizenship for all and expand voting rights to all.
BB: You make an excellent point - democracy is an abstract concept, but how it is put into practice has a tremendous effect on our lives. The old cynical anarchist joke was, "if voting changed anything, it would be illegal!" As you point out, for many, it is illegal, and beyond that, we have states pushing through hundreds of bills to restrict voting further. So it is crucial to pay attention to who is excluded and who is being targeted for exclusion. To follow up on that, when we were discussing the work to include in the exhibition, we were getting into some of the specifics about banners and slogans to have in the Protest Banner Lending Library in this exhibition. I was thinking through how I wanted this exhibition to be helpful as a teaching tool in conjunction with my class exploring democracy and art. I mentioned that I wished to include banners relating to supporting all voices in the political process, especially those who have been marginalized or disenfranchised, as well as affirmations of core democratic principles like freedom, justice, equality, and holding elected leaders to account. I began listing slogans I have seen on banners included in other iterations of this work and mentioned the "We Are In This Together" banner specifically - and you stopped me and said that you don't necessarily believe we are all in this together! That struck me as a profound statement and, unfortunately, valid when you consider that people are running for office around the country openly courting authoritarianism and extremism to undo our democracy through the mechanisms of democracy. In that light, we are not "all in this together," and we do not all share the core values of strengthening democratic participation or upholding a democratic society. Can you speak to your thoughts or feelings about this further?
AHS: Thank you for sharing and reminding me of this anecdote. We are in a political moment in our country where many people have incredibly different views, particularly with the rise of the extreme right and authoritarianism. I don't like slogans like "We Are All in This Together" because I don't believe that it is true, not only in this moment but in general. I try to fight against abstract and often untrue neoliberal ideas, like the idea that democracy is real. Also, as an immigrant woman of color, these slogans are used against me and often to silence me and my concerns. I work actively against neoliberal rhetoric and ideologies in my practice. For example, I got tired of hearing that we all need to vote and that voting is for all when I couldn't legally vote and knew that millions of people also couldn't. In neoliberal rhetoric, voting is the answer, and it is not a system that needs to be reimagined. I try to be as specific as possible because some of these broader statements are more harmful.
BB: Very true, voting is just one way of having your say, but there are other important ways to make your voice heard. Your work, The Official Unofficial Voting Station, looks specifically at those excluded from the political process. How was this project initially conceived?
AHS: In 2016, even though I had lived in the United States for more than 24 years, I couldn't vote. During the Presidential election, so much that was at stake was immigration policy. I wanted to be able to vote and have a say in what would so significantly impact the safety of my family, friends, neighbors, and community. So I began to question who can't legally vote in the United States. As I did this research, I found that the population of those who are disenfranchised and can't legally vote is more than 28% of the population. I was astonished that the population was so large and wanted to create a project where anyone could cast symbolic votes, particularly for those who are disenfranchised.
BB: The Official Unofficial Voting Station has had several iterations, you have had many collaborators throughout the project, and it seems like a very fluid expanding work. Please describe the various iterations, how they developed, some of the best collaborations you have had with this work, and what you find most important about the multiple iterations.
AHS: In all its iterations - in 2016, 2020, and 2022, I have collaborated with over 50 artists, students, activists, organizers, community organizations, galleries, and museums to create over 75 voting stations worldwide. Each has been different, and the project is fun in this way. In 2016, the project was commissioned by the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago. We contacted 15 artists, organizers, and community organizations in our networks to activate unique voting stations for the disenfranchised. This project involved educators and activists in Mexico City. Cecilia Aguilar Castillo and Erick Fernández Saldaña created performative voting stations in Mexico City, Tijuana, and Alcapulco, where people voted in fake blood on the candidates and stabbed wooden crosses into human effigies that represented the U.S. Presidential candidates. In 2020, due to the pandemic, I created a website with Jon Satrom: officialunofficial.vote, which we also updated for the 2022 iteration. In 2020, anyone could request their own voting kit to use the kits as they pleased to create their own symbolic voting station for the disenfranchised. Some of my favorite voting stations in 2020 included the Moto Voto + OUVS by Carol Zou, who drove around with a ballot box attached to her motorcycle in Los Angeles to collect symbolic votes and distribute information about voter suppression. I also enjoyed working with Sarah Ross to send over 500 ballots into prisons to incarcerated people in Illinois via mail, where we received more than 350 ballots back. I also loved working with the Artrepreneur class at Mural Arts Philadelphia to create a stand-alone structure in Love Park in Philadelphia that featured student-generated materials on voting and disenfranchisement. For 2022, I am working with you at St. Norbert College and with the Weinberg Newton Gallery in Chicago to create a new ballot that asks what people wish they could vote on at this moment, locally, nationally, and globally.
Collaborators and the various iterations of this project are one of the essential parts of this project for many reasons. First, only through collaborations can this project be far-reaching. Collaborators are often people who have specific access within specific disenfranchised communities. Second, this keeps the project fun. Each collaborator creates voting stations that can take on any form. It is always amazing to see what the different collaborators create. It also reinforces the idea that there isn't just one answer. I want to create a world that has many answers and many worlds. For me, it is vital that all the voting stations take on their forms based on the collaborators and communities they are engaging. Lastly, with collaborations, we build coalitions. This project exemplifies the need to build alliances because when we look at who can't legally vote, it shows that it is predominantly people of color, youth, and those with disabilities. We need to learn where our experiences overlap to build strong coalitions to fight against large systemic injustices.
BB: As a part of The Official Unofficial Voting Station, you created Voting Kits for the Disenfranchised, which included graphics, ballot boxes, stickers, and a Party as Protest vinyl record. Can you talk about this project and the collaborations involved in bringing this to life?
AHS: For the 2020 presidential election, so much was at stake, including rampant voter suppression. In response, and to expand the project, I created the Voting Kit for the Disenfranchised, a collection of objects made by myself and other Chicago-based artists for distribution to and activation of official unofficial voting stations in the United States and around the world. To start, I created fifty kits that anyone can request to initiate their voting station, and almost all have now been distributed. These kits included Official Unofficial presidential candidate ballots, Official Unofficial issues ballots, an Official Unofficial ballot box, Who Can't Legally Vote in the United States during the Presidential Elections? Graphics and Voting Stickers for All by Cute Rage Press, If We Could Vote, We Would! wristbands by Undocumented Projects, the Party as Protest compilation by DJ Sadie Woods, on a USB stick or vinyl LP, a 50 Actions to Expand Voting Rights flyers by Erin Delaney and myself, Vote for Our Futures and Vota Para Nuestro Futuro screen-print posters by William Estrada, and Let Us Vote! or Official Unofficial Voting Station: Voting for All Who Legally Can't, a banner from Protest Banner Lending Library by Sarah Whyte and myself.
The kit is intended as an inspiration. Anyone can request a kit, and those who used the materials to activate a voting station can pick and choose which materials to use and which to riff on. There are no limitations to the use of the kit. I only request that "activators" share the voting results and any other documentation they wish to contribute.
BB: The kit is an inspiration, and it is wonderful to bring the project to life here as we head into the midterm elections! You have been engaged in a research project looking at voter disenfranchisement as it manifests itself in different states in the U.S. what are some of the insights you have gained from that background research? How do you plan to bring that to life in future projects?
AHS: During the spring semester of 2021, I worked with the Center for Urban Research and Learning (CURL) at Loyola University, Chicago, with a group of student researchers to delve into data around disenfranchisement. We knew that around 90 million was a mere estimate by the U.S. Election Projects. This number doesn't include some categories, such as people deemed "mentally incapacitated" in certain states with this voting restriction. The more research we did as a team, the more confusing and unclear it all became. For example, we were trying to determine what "mentally incapacitated" means and what types of conditions and disabilities are included in this category. In 2020, the question of can someone who is under conservatorship came to public attention because people were asking if Britney Spears could vote. She can because she is a resident of California, where this restriction doesn't exist. Examples like this opened a whole host of questions, like can people under conservatorship be considered "mentally incapacitated?" We found the language around "mentally incapacitated" confusing, vague, and outdated. Most states have a law to restrict mentally" incompetent" individuals from voting. Certain states use wording like "idiots and insane persons," "unsound minds," and "persons must be of a quiet and peaceable behavior." We found that the language is vague and, when contested, is at the discretion of a judge. Even with our in-depth research, we found very few answers regarding who is included in this category and how significant this population is.
Another example is looking at felony disenfranchisement. Because the state determines voting rights, the specific state-by-state laws can be very different and confusing. Our research team had a lot of interest in looking at the specifics of this category. Luckily, the Sentencing Project is a fantastic resource at the forefront of looking at felony disenfranchisement and fighting for the enfranchisement of those who are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. We had encountered a lot of stories from our own experiences as well, where we met many formerly incarcerated people who lived in states where they could vote, but they didn't know that they could for years. For example, in 2020, felony disenfranchisement gained public attention because Snoop Dogg realized he could vote and was eligible for years because he lives in California. One can vote after finishing their time in prison and parole, yet he was under the impression that he could never vote again with his prior felonies. It demonstrates how difficult it is to understand the laws surrounding felony disenfranchisement when someone as well-resourced as Snoop Dogg didn't even know he was eligible to vote again. With this, we started to look for resources people can use to look up the laws in their state, find their eligibility, and the specific steps towards regaining their voting rights as a person who is incarcerated or formerly incarcerated. We could not find an already-in-place resource, so we started to put one together. Our initial research will be further fine-tuned with the help of you and your students!
Overall, my research team and I found the laws around voting rights utterly confusing. I believe this is on purpose, and it furthers voter suppression. Overall, many of these laws are vague, inaccessible, and over-complicated to keep certain groups of people like those incarcerated and formerly incarcerated and those with mental conditions and disabilities from voting, even if they are legally eligible.
BB: I am excited to work with my students to assist with this project! You have also been collaborating with organizations like the ACLU. Can you describe the projects that have been a result of these collaborations?
AHS: Currently, the 2022 Official Unofficial Voting Station installation is up at the Weinberg Newton Gallery in Chicago. This exhibition is a group show titled, All That Glows in the Dark of Democracy, and it is in partnership with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois. I'll be in conversation with the ACLU on a virtual program, We the People: A Conversation on Democracy, this Fall as a part of this collaboration. It's been great to work with organizations like the ACLU to share my findings and research on voting rights and disenfranchisement and how we can use art to speak about the political and social issues of our time.
BB: How has your experience through COVID affected you, especially given the social nature of or work?
AHS: Actually, my work never paused COVID. I was doing mask-making and protest banner-making workshops online. In addition, I created officialunofficial.vote with Jon Satrom so that the Official Unofficial Voting Stations could be accessible during COVID. Also, we cannot forget that in the summer of 2020, our nation experienced a flood of protests and civil unrest due to police brutality and racism triggered by the murder of George Floyd. Protest Banner Lending Library was very active at this moment, where many individuals created banners for the library and checked out banners for protests. Many people, including myself, realized how important it is to make collectively and as a community during COVID.
BB: I agree. COVID, and please excuse my pun here, became a feverish period of activity for many, for myself as well. It seemed people were reaching out for connection in so many different ways. Who or what currently inspires you or motivates you? Alternatively, is there anything you find yourself returning to as an inspirational ground, something, or someone that continues to sustain you?
AHS: During COVID, I joined an all-women's traditional Korean drumming group, Woori Sori. Historically, Korean traditional drumming, pungmul was played for harvesting rituals, collective farming labor, community celebrations, gathering people for action to resist colonial power, and for protests. Pungmul is not only designed for performance but creates a space to celebrate the lives of all individuals and communities and raise collective power. Many of the members are amazing organizers and community workers, and we come together in our commitment to work together to achieve gender, racial, social, and economic justice. This drumming group gives me a lot of joy and inspiration. We just performed for a summer concert at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and my seven-year-old joined our performance by singing a traditional Korean song. In addition, the group wore garments I made with my studio assistant, Eric Guy, with protest banners hidden inside our garments to reveal during the performance.
BB: That's fantastic! As a final question, what projects are next on your horizon? Do you think you will continue examining citizenship issues, disenfranchisement, and engagement in democracy? Are there any specific projects you are looking forward to developing in the near future?
AHS: The thing about my projects is that many of them don't end because the political conditions around them don't end. For example, Protest Banner Lending Library keeps growing because we are still protesting. So, I'm still working on U.S. Citizenship Test Sampler (2012-present), Protest Banner Lending Library (2016-present), Official Unofficial Voting Station (2016-present), and Protest Garment Lab (2020-present). I'm currently in Chiapas, Mexico, and will be here until the end of 2022, working on a textile project centering on indigenous artists and artisans. When I return, I'll be jumping into a project in partnership with HANA Center to create vertical traditional Korean banners called Nonggi around the theme of fighting for Citizenship for All.
Aram Han Sifuentes is a fiber and social practice artist who works to claim spaces for immigrant and disenfranchised communities. Her work often revolves around skill sharing, specifically sewing techniques, to create multiethnic and intergenerational sewing circles, which become a place for empowerment, subversion, and protest. Website: www.aramhansifuentes.com
Brandon Bauer is an Associate Professor of Art at St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI. He uses art as a space for ethical inquiry, exploring issues relating to democracy, nuclear abolition, terrorism, and the climate crisis by examining critical histories embedded in cultural ephemera. Website: brandonbauer.org