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The Thousands of Shoes on Capitol Hill and the Political Art They Evoke

The more than 7,000 pairs of shoes commemorating victims of school shootings recalled the many artworks that have used clothing to raise awareness around violence.

On Tuesday of this week, more than 7,000 pairs of shoes lined the lawn in front of the US Capitol. The display, organized by activists, was set up just before student walkouts across the nation to commemorate the victims of school shootings — and to push for stricter gun laws. (The number of shoes equaled the estimated number of children killed by guns since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012.) The display of shoes quickly went viral; on my own Facebook feed, a former classmate remarked: “This will be chronicled as powerful protest art.”

Clothing has been an effective tool to shed light on sociopolitical realities. The Clothesline Project, for instance, began in 1990 with just 31 shirts hanging on a line — each one representing a victim of sexual or domestic violence. Since then, the shirts have become a means for survivors to tell their stories.

The impact of mass shootings on schools didn’t seem so abstract anymore when the 7,000 pairs of shoes appeared. In these instances, clothing is much more than something practical — it becomes imbued with the bodies we can’t see or access, their absence made all the more palpable, as well as the collective trauma left behind.

Artists and museums have similarly used clothes and personal belongings to illuminate the bodies that society systematically ignores and abuses. The display of shoes in Washington recalled some of these projects, which likewise humanize and capture events that are sometimes too horrific to process or that we’ve become numb to because of the news.

26 September 2014, shoes in the permanent exhibition of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (image courtesy US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The gesture this Tuesday most immediately recalled the shoe installation at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where visitors encounter a pile of 4,000 shoes which were confiscated from prisoners at the Majdanek concentration camp. In their varying sizes, they show the breadth of people forced to enter the camp — including the very young. The shoes show obvious signs of wear, markers of time passing. Yet their impact feels all too immediate. Their presence serves as reminders of the horrors of the Holocaust and the ways in which so many people were stripped of their humanity.

Teresita de la Torre’s “365 Days in an Immigrant’s Shirt” (2015) (image courtesy the artist)

Teresita de la Torre’s “365 Days in an Immigrant’s Shirt”

While working with a nonprofit group that supplied water to immigrants crossing the border, Teresita de la Torre found a plaid T-shirt caught on a bush. That shirt became the basis for her project “365 Days in an Immigrant’s Shirt” (2015), in which she wore the shirt for a year until it was worn down. Part of de la Torre’s project is now on view at Charles White Elementary School as part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition A Universal History of Infamy: Those of This America. I work at the museum, and whenever I go to the exhibition I find myself drawn to this wall where the tattered pieces of the shirt are strung across the wall. The small bits of fabric are evidence of the shirt’s journey on de la Torre’s back but also materialize the toll that crossing the border has on the human body.

Teresita de la Torre’s “365 Days in an Immigrant’s Shirt” (image courtesy the artist)

The project also includes a series of drawings, one of which lists all of de la Torre’s misgivings about the project. Number six reads: “I am privileged. I am not undocumented.” Growing up near the border, the artist learned about la migra (immigration) at a young age. The T-shirt serves as a symbol for de la Torre’s reflection on her personal history and her efforts to amplify narratives beyond her own.

Patricia Cronin’s “Shrine for Girls, Venice” (2015) (photo by Mark Blower)

Patricia Cronin’s “Shrine for Girls” 

A series of site-specific installations, “Shrine for Girls” (2015), sheds lights on three separate incidents: the gang-rape and lynching of two Indian girls in 2014; the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls the same year; and the “fallen women” of 18th- and 20th-century Magdalene laundries. Patricia Cronin includes saris, hijabs, and aprons to symbolize each injustice, respectively. The clothing items sit atop a wooden crate, their limp forms suggesting a forgotten or discarded history; the crate references human trafficking.

Patricia Cronin’s “Shrine for Girls” (2015)

Cronin says her goal is to take apart the “role of contemporary art in our 24-hour news cycle society,” especially when it comes to tragedies such as these. By presenting clothing items, she asks that the viewer remember the individuality of each victim amidst the shocking statistics of violence against women.

Margarita Cabrera’s “Space in Between — Agave” 

Margarita Cabrera’s social practice project “Space in Between” examines the economic relationship between the US and Latin America, specifically the exploitation of cheap labor. Currently, the project exists as a collaboration with the Arizona State University Art Museum and the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Cabrera organizes workshops with immigrants from Mexico and Central America; together they create sculptures of desert plants indigenous to the Southwest of the United States. These replicas are made of border patrol uniforms, the green of their fabric giving color to each plant. Each piece also has a story stitched into it, a narrative that each maker inserts into the piece. One piece, which tells the story of Doris Linda, includes images of possibly officers, a dog, and plants. When displayed at the Craft and Folk Art Museum, viewers could see each small detail and how it corresponded to the maker’s experience of crossing the border.

Sheila Johnson Gallery at the New School (photo by Jillian Steinhauer)

The list of artworks goes on, and often the same acts of violence turn up again and again. The art project What Were You Wearing?, created in 2013 by the University of Kansas’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, has displayed the clothes that victims wore at the time of their sexual assault, alongside their stories. And in a different educational project at the University of Michigan, Jason De Léon conducted fieldwork with a group of students at the US-Mexico border, gathering a wide collection of objects left behind, from clothes to backpacks and toothbrushes.

The deceivingly simple act of showing an immigrant’s shirt or border patrol uniform broadens our conversations around these topics. These artworks, like the 7,000 pairs of shoes, ask that we take a look at the common items we all put on in the morning — from shoes to T-shirts — and consider them as markers of our shared humanity.

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