CHICAGO — It’s crazy to think that it’s been nearly a year since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Over this time, artist Aram Han Sifuentes has been channeling much of her frustration and outrage into sewing protest banners. She began the day after the election, creating a banner that read, “Dump Trump,” with stark lettering spread over a turquoise fabric cheerfully decorated with pugs.
“I wanted to go to the protests but couldn’t, or didn’t feel safe going,” Sifuentes told Hyperallergic, explaining that she has a child and, at the time, was not an American citizen. “I just had to do something else — process through materials, through making with my hand. It was a very instinctual thing.” Sifuentes has been sewing since she was six, having learned from her mother; she is now a professor in fiber arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The “Dump Trump” banner was just the first of many to come, made with friends old and new, in free workshops Sifuentes organized in her apartment and at the Comfort Station. Within weeks, she had amassed piles of fabrics to shout for women’s rights, a clean planet, and an end to deportations, among other causes.
So she decided to start a library for our times: the Protest Banner Lending Library, where anyone can check out a banner free of charge, as you would a book — except with no due dates and no late fees. It first popped up at the Chicago Cultural Center last February, where it remained for four months during Sifuentes’s residency there.
Now, the library is at Alphawood Gallery, where visitors can choose from a collection of over 160 banners. It’s a diverse archive, giving you the option to proudly wave demands for everything from free education to Trump’s tax returns. There are banners to express anger (“FUCK,” spelled out six times); banners to spread hope (“We are in this together”); and banners that urge simple truths (“Water is life”).
Some were sewn by Sifuentes, while others were made by her collaborators, Verónica Casado Hernández, Ishita Dharap, and Tabitha Anne Kunkes; many are the creations of individuals Sifuentes has met over the last few months during banner-making workshops she has hosted at the Chicago Cultural Center, the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, the Smart Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and at the Whitney Museum — where she worked with Cauleen Smith as part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial‘s programming.
At Alphawood Gallery, you can sift through a simple card catalog system that lists available banners; the back of every card keeps a log of loans made, including entries for people to list the protests they intend to attend with a borrowed banner.
Over the past year, the library’s signs have made appearances around various Chicago neighborhoods at protests including an anti-eviction march, emergency demonstrations against Trump’s travel ban, and marches supporting transgender rights, to name a few occasions. They made it to Women’s March in Chicago and in Washington, DC; Sifuentes has also sent some out to organizations in other cities that requested custom-made banners. And sometimes the banners don’t even appear in the streets. Schoolteachers have checked them out to hang in classrooms, and a Chicago youth theater organization once borrowed some to use for a set.
Through November 16, Sifuentes is hosting more free workshops on Thursday afternoons at the gallery, where materials are provided and no sewing skills are needed. For these sessions, participants cut letters out of fusible web, which adheres to another sheet of fabric when heated with an iron. As one might expect, almost all the slogans for banners express left-leaning ideas, but anyone is welcome to attend, regardless of political leanings. Sifuentes recalls someone who created an “All Lives Matter” banner in a workshop, although this one didn’t end up getting donated to the library.
“It’s not about our leftist views,” she said. “It’s more about this idea of solidarity and coming together. It’s about feeling that sense of community and support through making.”
After its run in Chicago, the library will move on to Boston and Philadelphia, although Sifuentes is still coordinating the specifics. She is also hoping that it will travel to St. Louis. Ideally, she envisions the banners remaining in circulation throughout the duration of the Trump administration. Whenever his term ends, at least some, hopefully, can be archived for good.
“Someone said that when Trump is out of office it can become his official ‘Unofficial Presidential Library,’” Sifuentes added. “I love that idea.”
The Protest Banner Lending Library continues at Alphawood Gallery through November 16.
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