Saturday, November 5, 2016

Interview: Aram Han Sifuentes

For artist, writer, and curator Aram Han Sifuentes, needle and thread are a political tool, connecting the material labor of sewing with a social and performative practice to activate the cultural histories of immigrant communities. This approach was never clearer than in her recent solo exhibition at the Chicago Artists Coalition, where she chose to highlight the work of her mother, Younghye Han, an artist who set aside her painting practice for a steady job when the family moved to the US from South Korea more than two decades ago. Younghye returned to drawing and painting after the birth of Aram’s own daughter last year. Cultural ReProducers is pleased to share interviews with both artists.  You can find Aram’s interview with her mother here.

Aram Han Sifuentes’ work has been exhibited widely in the US and internationally, including recent projects for the Chung Young Yang Embroidery Museum (Seoul, South Korea), the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, IL) and the Elmhurst Art Museum (Elmhurst, IL). She the recipient of numerous awards, most recently including a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship and a public residency through the Chicago Cultural Center. Her current project, ​The Official Unofficial Voting Station: Voting for All Who Legally Can't, is a massive multi-site collaboration with artists and activists in fifteen cities across the US and Mexico, commissioned by Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull House Museum.  

Cultural ReProducers: Briefly describe your daughter in your own words.  

Aram Han Sifuentes: My daughter, Nara Han Sifuentes, is 15 months old. She is a beautiful Chicana Coreana or Mexorean aka multiculticutie. It’s been such a joy watching her grow and to figure herself and the world out. She does new things every day and I am just astounded and floored over and over again. Today she learned how to squeeze her bath toys and aim the water coming out of them at my face. She was very serious for the first year but lately she is so silly and playful. She often wakes up in the morning singing, waking us up with kisses, clapping, and asking for her favorite cartoon “Pororo”. She doesn’t say “umma” (mom) much but she says Pororo all the time. She also loves giving all her stuff toys kisses.

Younghye Han: My Mother's First Exhibition, installation view
CR: In the project Younghye Han: My Mother’s First Exhibition you present this beautifully complex cycle of intergenerational influence, starting with your mother as a young artist in Korea whose creative aspirations shifted in moving to the United States. There is a circling back through your own creative practice and the birth of your daughter. How did this project come together?

Aram: As a part of my Bolt Residency at Chicago Artist Coalition, I had an opportunity for a solo exhibition in the Summer of 2016. In 2015 after the birth of my daughter, my mom started drawing and painting again for the first time in 22 years. She used to be an artist in Korea and even ran her own art center. When we came to the United States in 1992, she started two drawings and one painting which never got completed. After our first year in the United States my parents took employment at a dry cleaners and later came to own their own, where my mom became and still works as the seamstress. They work 70 hour weeks so there is no time for anything else.

Younghye Han, Nara on a Pillow, 2016
But they recently had hired someone to help them out part time and my mom started to create
wonderful portraits of Nara at the cleaners. My mom lives in California, and Nara and I Facetime her every day. She was showing us these beautiful new drawings and paintings with such pride. I was thinking through what I wanted to do for my solo exhibition and it dawned on me one day that it would be so great if my mom could show her work. So I asked her if she wanted her own solo show. She didn’t answer me right away. She actually freaked out a bit. She told me the idea stressed her out, but then she agreed. When we moved to the United States, my mom only salvaged and brought over three paintings that she made in the 80s. I told her I wanted to exhibit these as well.

I had never forgotten about those two drawings and that one painting she started in our first year in the U.S. but never finished. Those actually sat in my room for a long time while I was growing up. I’d stare at them all the time, wondering when my mother would ever return to them. I asked her if she wanted to continue them but she told me she wasn’t interested. They weren’t her style anymore. So I asked her if I could complete them in some way and include them in the exhibition. She was excited by the idea and that’s also how they became included in the exhibition.

CR: You address questions of cultural identity in your artistic practice, examining family traditions as well as the assumptions and barriers you find there. This is an important part of the work of your husband, Roberto Sifuentes, as well. How does this process of questioning, celebrating, and re-articulating spill over into the messy business of parenting, or family in general?

Nara has already lived one month of her life in Korea and one month of her life in Mexico! We also speak to Nara in English, Korean, and Spanish. I usually speak to her in Korean, and Roberto in English. Then we both mix in Spanish whenever we feel like it. I speak Spanish pretty badly and studied a lot of Portuguese in college so I’m always making words up. Roberto also attempts to speak Korean and then mixes Spanish into it all the time. So it never makes sense. So at home, we are definitely on our way into creating a hybrid language called Konglishñol. But we don’t ever understand what each other is saying. We also do this with food. We are working on a cook book called Korean Today, Mexican Tomorrow because I’ll cook Korean for dinner then the next morning Roberto likes to turn the leftovers into something Mexican. It transitions amazingly well. I think this is the way we both approach our cultural identities- we revere and love them but then really enjoy messing and riffing off of them. And we parent in this way. I Tiger Mom when I want to but then let her eat a bunch of chocolate and not brush her teeth at night when I feel like it.

Nara revisits artist William Pope L.'s performance, The Great White Way.
CR: So what was your process like for returning to a creative practice after having a newborn? What has been the most challenging and most rewarding, at this stage in things?

Aram: I had two exhibitions and performances back to back in different states three weeks after her birth. It was hard. I’ve been incredibly busy this past 15 months with amazing opportunities. I must say I have been much more active in my career than I was before Nara was born. Nara and my career taking momentum happened at the same time. It definitely hasn’t been easy. As Nara gets older, she gets more and more active, which means I get to do much less work while she’s awake. She slams her hands on my keyboard when my computer is open and there is no way I can do any hand sewing while she’s around. She would definitely grab for the needle. She isn’t much of napper but luckily sleeps well at night (8 hours). So the biggest challenge for me right now is that I can only work when she is sleeping, which also means I sleep a lot less. I’m one of those people who needs 10 hours of sleep a night so this has been really hard for me. The most rewarding is that it’s been fun for my career to grow at the same time as Nara. I try to take her to everything and she gets to witness it and be a part of it all. In this way, she sees different parts of the world and gets to meet all sorts of exciting people. I’m very lucky as well that Roberto is really supportive and takes care of Nara often while I install an exhibition or leave for a week to do a visiting artist gig, and etc.

CR: How has becoming a mother affected your relationship with the art world? In imagining an ideal creative community, what alternative structures or attitude shifts would be part of that?

Aram: I think overall I’ve become bolder in the world. I have more battles to fight and things feel more urgent and pressing because I don’t want things just to change for me, but I need them to change for my daughter. My relationship with the art world is the same. The art world needs more people of color and to represent us in all our complexities.

Official Unofficial Voting Station's Vox Pop: The Disco Party in collaboration
with Lise Haller Baggesen and Soundscapes by DJ Sadie Rock
 CR: Can you talk about what you’re working on now, and what’s on the horizon?

Official Unofficial Voting Station in Tijuana by collaborators Cecilia Aguilar
Castillo and Erick Fernández Saldaña
Aram: I currently have a solo exhibition at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum called The Official Unofficial Voting Station: Voting for All Who Legally Can’t. During this polarizing election season, I am working with 15 artists and radical thinkers all over the United States and in Mexico to create voting stations that are open to all, but particularly for the disenfranchised. There are at least 106 million people who live in the United States and its territories who are disenfranchised. These groups include: youth, non-citizens, incarcerated, ex-felons (depending on the state), residents of U.S. territories, and those without proper IDs (also, depending on the state). To engage the various communities of the disenfranchised, all of these stations take on different form depending on the collaborator. They range from participatory public artworks to radical performances to pedagogical tools. For example, my collaborators in Mexico City, Tijuana, and Acapulco, Cecilia Aguilar Castillo and Erick Fernández Saldaña, created a station where participants voted with fake blood then drilled screws and Mexican flags into styrofoam heads of Trump and Hillary to vote against them. On November 8th we will have a big public program at the Hull-House from 1-5pm where DJ Sadie Rock will be playing music, and Yvette Mayorga and I will be facilitating a workshop where the public helps us to build a piñata wall. When the wall is complete, the public is invited to help bash it. That evening, from 6-7pm on Nov. 8th, Roberto Sifuentes, DJ Sadie Rock, and I will be performing and asking the public to fill out ballots at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. All the ballots come from and are counted at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. After Nov. 8th the installation at the Hull-House then turns into a suggestion station and is on exhibit until the end of April.

After this project, I’m interested in gestures of mass voting that can happen across borders. I will be focusing on doing Official Unofficial Voting Stations in the United States for Korea’s 2017 Presidential Elections and Mexico’s 2018 Presidential Elections.

Nara casting her ballot at the Official Unofficial Voting Station

Interview With My Mother, Younghye Han

Younghye Han received her BFA in Traditional Ink Painting from Ewha Woman’s University and ran her own painting and drawing academy for children for five years in Seoul, South Korea.  She has been working as a seamstress and running Mainz Dry Cleaners in Manteca, CA with her husband for more than 20 years. She recently had her first exhibition at the Chicago Artists Coalition in collaboration with her daughter, Aram Han Sifuentes, an artist who combines fiber art with social practice to engage labor, cultural history, and immigrant communities. Cultural ReProducers is honored to present conversations with both artists, a testament to the intergenerational creative impact of mothers, daughters, and granddaughters. 

You can find our interview with Aram Han Sifuentes here. The interview below was conducted as part of the exhibition Younghye Han: My Mother’s First Exhibition, and begins with an introduction Aram wrote for the show: 

Younghye Han, Nara on a Pillow, 2016
My family immigrated to the United States in 1992. A trained artist in Korea, Younghye Han left that behind and has spent the last 24 years, working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, as a seamstress and running her own dry cleaning business in Manteca, California. It has been 24 years since her last painting. Inspired by the birth of her first granddaughter in 2015, she began drawing and painting again. This is my mother’s first exhibition. It features her works made in Korea, her most recent pieces, and my responses to her last unfinished drawings made in the first year we immigrated to the United States. 

These are the questions I’ve asked my mother. Some of these are questions I’ve asked again and again throughout my life and the answers have changed and evolved throughout the years, further complicating my mother’s story. Some of these are questions I’ve never had the courage to ask her before. This interview was translated from Korean.  

Aram: How did you decide to become an artist?

When I was seven or eight years old, I found out about an art contest at my elementary school. I went home and told my sister who yelled at me and told me to get money from our parents to apply. So I was crying when I asked my parents. They gave me the money and I went to school after hours to apply. This was my first time I participated in an art contest but I won a big prize. From then on I applied every year and continued to win big prizes. Later on I asked my sister why she yelled at me to apply. She said that she would see me draw and I didn’t draw like other kids my age. They would draw stick figures but I wouldn’t. She said I drew high heels particularly well and saw that I had talent. My sister wanted to study theater and our parents were opposed to it and didn’t let her pursue it. Then in high school our family went bankrupt and I wanted to go to college. I knew that artists wouldn’t be able to make much money straight out of school. So I was deciding whether or not to go into art or to go into nursing. Even though it would be hard, I decided to go into art. So I took the tests and got into art schools. My mother wished I wouldn’t pass. She didn’t even believe it when I passed the tests.

Aram: Why did you decide to move our family to the United States?

Younghye: Even though your father and I received our education from very good universities, our English wasn’t very good. So we thought that you and your sister could do anything if you knew English well. This is why we decided to move to the U.S.

Aram: What type of job did you think you would work in the U.S?

Younghye: I knew it would be difficult. But I just wanted you and your sister to learn English. Then you both would be able to do anything and get any type of good paying job. I didn’t think about myself so I didn’t know what type of work I would do. I just thought about your future. My parents weren’t able to help me so I wanted to make sure that I could help you both in any way.

Aram: You didn’t think about it?

Younghye: I thought that if other people could do find work and make it in the U.S., then I could do it too.

Younghye Han, Nara Sitting, 2016
Aram: Why a dry cleaners?

Younghye: When we came here, it seemed that the only jobs available to us were to run a liquor
store, ice cream shop, or dry cleaners. We didn’t want to work at a liquor store because during this time the LA riots were happening and they were targeted so we decided not to go that route. And I can do anything with my hands. I knew how to sew already and thought that working at a dry cleaners would be easier.

Aram: Did you think you would be able to practice art here?

Younghye: I knew that I would make art again at some point in my life before I die. It was too hard working at the cleaners. I gave up even though my mind was there and I thought about it often. But when I saw Nara, I started to make art again because I felt so inspired.

Aram: How did you feel about me becoming an artist?

Younghye: Now I feel happy about it. At first I was so worried. It is not an easy job and there is no stability. I know since I was an artist. It was so hard for me so I didn’t want that for you. It is too hard. Now that I have worked too hard for many years, I’ve lost my happiness. While raising you two and working so hard, my life and happiness has become lost. Now I am thankful toward you. Through you I was able to find my art again. You Facetime me every day so I can see Nara and you talk to me in Korean. I always thought that if you are kind, then life will be good to you. I gave up on this but this has come to me suddenly.

Aram Han Sifuentes, Mom’s Drawings of Roses (1992) Encased, 2016, Mulberry paper and wax