LOS ANGELES — Rhythmic beats of Korean drums and chants fill the hallway before entering the exhibition, almost like an auditory map guiding folks to sites of protest. Upon entering, the pungmul drum beats louder, and the viewer is confronted with colorful, patterned banners, some sewn and some printed. Hung from the ceiling, these banners display messages of solidarity such as a neon green text stating “Aliens Welcome,” next to an equally neon image of an alien in front of notes of commemoration listing all of the Atlanta spa shooting victims in March of 2021. Behind the banners on a wall projection, members of Woori Sori — an all-women Korean percussion group based in Chicago — smile and nod to each other as they drum with a quiet joy. The work is part of the exhibition Talking Back to Power: Projects by Aram Han Sifuentes at the Skirball Cultural Center, which puts on full view the labor of immigrant women as they find footing in a new country.
Aram Han Sifuentes starts personal: The first artwork to the right is an ink drawing of persimmons by her mother Younghye Han, an immigrant from South Korea. In the accompanying text, she writes that though her mother dreamed of being an artist, upon immigrating to America she instead found work as a seamstress and taught a young Han Sifuentes how to sew because “it’s useful.” The simultaneous gift and sacrifice offered by her mother both color and contextualize the themes surveyed around the invisibilized and gendered labor of immigrant women throughout the entire exhibition — herself included.
Many of Han Sifuentes’s works presented in the show are ongoing and durational. All of them, whether done in collaboration or alone, in performance or in private, are meant to be built upon. She works in samples: of denim scraps with sewn-in answers from interviews of twenty-three garment workers, all of them immigrant women; of a painstakingly researched list of citizenship questions; and of quilts answering those very questions, hand-sewn by 100 immigrants for whom she hosted a series of embroidery and citizenship workshops. The last sample quilts were sold for $725 (the cost of applying for citizenship) as proceeds for these individuals. As if making her own census, Han Sifuentes surveys groups of immigrants with full lives and stories beyond the definitions of arbitrary state borders and even more arbitrary rites of passage, reflecting the never-ending nature of the research, labor, and proof needed by an immigrant in order to demonstrate their belonging.
Starting with the humble acknowledgment of all of her collaborators, Han Sifuentes opens space for visitors to borrow banners from her “Protest Banner Lending Library” (2016–present) or to make one themselves in banner-making workshops. Together, another version of this world is possible — one with open borders and safety for all people. Talking Back to Power: Projects by Aram Han Sifuentes reminds us that artmaking has the power to bridge the personal and political, and envision social conditions where everybody can belong.
Talking Back to Power: Projects by Aram Han Sifuentes continues at Skirball Cultural Center (2701 North Sepulveda Boulevard, Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles) through September 4. The exhibition was organized by the museum.