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

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