In my first three months of being in the Art and Social Practice MFA program, I had many intimate conversations that made me feel held by my communities. One particularly honest and funny conversation was with writer, educator, and fiber and social practice artist, Aram Han Sifuentes. It reminded me of my time spent between and after classes at Reed College’s Multicultural Resource Center during my undergraduate experience which ended last year. Here, I exchanged tears, rage, and juice with BIPOC peers and staff about being in YT spaces. It was a means of catharsis for me.
Since then, I have found it grounding to recreate similar sacred spaces, for further intimate conversations with my communities; it has guided my practice as an artist and organizer who works with youth of color in Portland, Oregon. I often think about how to support them if they choose to enter the art world. One way has been revisiting the complicated questions that I’ve encountered the past three months: What does my socially engaged artwork look like in a white space? How do I take care of my rage? Another way is suggesting that you all listen to Aram’s song recommendation, “달라달라 DALLA DALLA” by ITZY.
Aram Han Sifuentes: When I read transcripts, I realized I like to start a sentence without finishing it. I say, “you know.” My classic California comes out: “like,” “you know,” “yeah,” “right.” So I feel sorry for you. You have to listen to it and transcribe it.
Lillyanne Pham: No, it’s totally okay. I very much like an interview that sounds like an actual conversation versus like something we just emailed over. I’m excited.
Aram: I’m on my headphones. Does it sound okay? I know it’s sort of windy where I’m at.
Lillyanne: Yeah, I think it sounds okay. It’s picking up the sound. We originally met at the Mural Arts of Philly(1) training, where you showed us how to make our own protest banners. I mentioned how my grandma had a garment sewing factory in Vietnam. And when my mother became a refugee, she sewed our neighbor’s clothes to make extra money. As a kid watching my mom create something so pretty, I was inspired to create my own clothing line. And I came home one day to find all my work thrown in the trash. I disappointed her, but it wasn’t about creating something. She had her reasons. And when I mentioned this to you, I felt that you had a really good response in terms of how to navigate that relationship with my mother and then also connecting it to my practice. I was wondering if you wanted to say more about that.
Aram: Yeah, I relate to that story, definitely. Because my mom was an artist in Korea, and an art educator. She had a hard time in Korea, so she did not want me to be an artist. She didn’t teach me how to do the sort of painting and calligraphy that she is master of, right.
And so when we came to the United States, my parents started working in dry cleaning. And my mom started to do all the sewing because she had already known how to sew before. She had always made her own clothes, and things like that. And so she actually taught me how to sew at a young age because, you know, it was just, I think, sort of practical. And I would help, right, with the seam ripper, rip out the zippers that didn’t work anymore, things like that, even though I was very little.
And when I started, when I told her I wanted to be an artist, she was really upset by that, right. Because she knows how hard it is. And she wanted my life to be more sustainable. Right. And then, when I started incorporating sewing into my art practice, she was really sort of heartbroken about that. Because she told me she spent her whole life sewing, so that I didn’t have to do that. And so seeing that I was doing that for my art practice, just really hit her in a really hard way, you know? So, I can relate to that. Like, your mom not wanting you to do that.
Lillyanne: Yeah. Oh, sorry for interrupting. I was going to mention that I feel like when I do tell people— like outsiders— about this kind of story that I feel like they think of the tiger mom narrative. Right.
Aram: Right, right. My mom and my parents are actually very cool and very progressive. And, you know, I think they gave me a lot of freedom to find what I was what I want to do, and gave me a lot of support, even though, you know, I think, when I chose to be an artist, it was sort of like, the most challenging thing for them to sort of learn how to support me through that.
Yeah, I think, you know, it’s really hard work. To sew, it takes a really long time. Like, your mom’s story, to be able to sew is such a skill, right. I think, particularly women of color, immigrant women, who have learned that growing up, when they do that type of work here, it really is like, I don’t know, I guess I’m sort of tripping on my words, but it provides financial stability to some extent, right.
Like, if you know how to sew, you could hem people’s clothes, for, you know, $10 here or there. $20 here, there. And that adds up, you know, and I think like, it actually is such an amazing skill that a lot of our mothers, grandmothers, and our aunties have and hold.
Speaking for myself, my parents didn’t want me to do that. Because they wanted me to, you know, have a different kind of stability, or maybe, like, a white collar job, or, you know, I think that’s what they’ve been working for. So that I don’t have to do the sort of demanding hand work that they do. Which is really hard, right? My parents work six days a week. They’re at the shop, at least 12 hours a day. And then my mom brings extra work with her to sew at home. So it’s crazy hours. I think my mom really just didn’t want that for me. You know?
Lillyanne: I also was wondering how you would advise other children of immigrants and refugees to essentially come out saying that you want to be an artist or pursue an MFA. When I first applied for my MFA, folks asked me what my family thought about my decision to apply. And I’m thinking, “Why would I tell my family that I’m applying to an MFA when I haven’t even gotten into the program?” After I got in, people just kept asking me, “What does your family think?” And I was like, “Oh, I really don’t tell my family about these certain things.” So I was just wondering how your process went?
Aram: Yeah, that sounds a little bit like … So I think for me, the advice I give is that— I mean, there’s a lot of advice, but I think the one thing I would say is, I think it definitely comes from a place from our parents and our family, not knowing what options there are to be an artist. They just automatically think we’re gonna become starving artists, right.
Aram: And suffer from financial insecurity our whole life. Right. And to some extent, like, it’s difficult being an artist, because our income isn’t so stable, or so regular, like, you know, being a doctor, or these sorts of things that our parents understand— what those jobs and what that financial security means. But I think like, just letting your parents know that there is financial stability to being an artist.
Aram: There are opportunities for artists. There’s many career paths that we can take as artists. So I think like, having those conversations and sort of opening that up for our parents, or our family or communities to understand that becoming an artist doesn’t mean that we’re going to be starving, you know. I think that’s like one of the steps.
And also letting them know that it isn’t so clear of a path. You know, it isn’t like, we study pre-med, then we get into med school, and then we do medical residency, and then we become a doctor. It’s not like that; we have to be creative. And piece things together here and there, or this sort of contract or that sort of grant or whatnot, but that it’s totally doable, you know? So I think that is a big thing. And then I think we have stories to tell.
Aram: Rather than letting other people tell our stories, or us being absent, you know. In a way, we’re never absent, but, you know, we have stories to tell. I think becoming an artist is so exciting because this is my opportunity to use those skills that my mom has taught me, like sewing and looking at our story as immigrants in this country, and using art to tell my own story is so important. It’s really rewarding and exciting, and necessary. And so, I think, you know, as best we can, we have those conversations with our community.
Lillyanne: Yeah, so I recently had my mom find one of my poems that was published about my experience, growing up with domestic violence, but then also weaving with Asian fetishization in the U.S. And she was super embarrassed. And then I got into this kind of debacle where it was like, you know, I didn’t ask for her consent to talk about an experience that is hers, yet also mine.
I’m also going to bring in some ideas that you wrote in your article, “How Internalized White Supremacy Manifests for My BIPOC Students in Art School.(2)” You mentioned how folks are criticised for their work being too personal. “‘It’s art therapy, not art.’”
It’s a balancing of sharing your personal, lived experiences, and then tackling that within your own family. I feel like I talk a lot about my story to folks outside of my family, because I need to connect. And I feel like I didn’t get that connection within my family. And it’s helped me process my relationships in my family, too. But at the same time, I definitely feel like me and my mom should probably talk about this. Maybe I shouldn’t talk about this. I don’t know if that made any sense.
Aram: Yeah, I mean, it’s delicate. And it’s definitely complicated. Right. I think, my family too, we tend to be very … quiet … about our family matters. We don’t want to expose the dysfunction, the sort of trauma, the pain that happens within our own families, in our experiences. I think it’s such a delicate balance. And, I don’t have a correct answer, I don’t really have a right answer for it. But, I think you’re doing the right thing, in terms of like, telling your own story, through your own perspective, you’re not telling it for your mother. But, it obviously has to do with her personal life as well. Right. But, having those conversations with her as well about how important this is for you.
And it’s really unfortunate, you know, that in the art world and in art education, that it’s so shunned upon to make really personal work, you know. I think that’s so essential, to actually even make personal work. Because why would we make something or say something or tell a story that doesn’t have a connection with our personal life? I think it’s absolutely necessary to tell our own stories from our own perspective, and from our own lived experiences. It’s absolutely crucial, you know. I don’t believe in making something that’s too personal or making something that’s art therapy and not art. I don’t think that exists. And I think, again, those are sort of these categories and terms that white supremacy puts on to us telling our own stories and suppressing that right. I think it’s so important that we do more of that.
Lillyanne: I was wondering how you felt after completing My Mother’s First Exhibition(3)?
Aram: That was really emotional artwork for me, for sure. Because I had an opportunity to have a solo show. And I had just given birth to my child. And my mom started drawing and painting again after 24 years. And it was so amazing to see, and so exciting.
So I asked her during that time, “Do you want to show your work for this solo exhibition opportunity that I have, so that it’s your solo exhibition?” At first, she was really sort of nervous and upset about it actually. [laughs]
She got sort of nervous about the pressure because she was like, “I’m just doing this for fun and now you’re making me do an entire exhibition on it.” [Lillyanne laughs] She sort of freaked out that way. And I was like, “Okay, just think about it. I’m not pressuring you.”
And then it was so funny because she sent me a photo of the next painting that she made and I called her. I was like, “Oh, nice. That’s a really nice one Mom. Wow, you’re just cranking these out.” She’s like, “Yes, it’s for my solo show.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” That was my answer right there. [Aram and Lillyanne laugh together]
And so it was really exciting because then she created all these works. And it was the new works that she was making after 24 years of not making the work. It was so beautiful. I think, thinking about an art practice when you’re an artist, like for my mom, when I was talking to her about it, she’s like, “I love art. I always knew I loved art. It was such an important part of me.” And coming to the United States, like not being able to practice art, because she had no free time. And it was so pressing to make a living for the family, right. She sort of let that go.
And she was telling me that she thought for a while that it had left forever, that she would never make art ever again. It sort of came by surprise. And I think it sort of surprised everyone in the family and even herself, and all of a sudden, with the birth of my kid, and then my parents hired one more person at the cleaners to help them. She had a little bit more time. Then she started setting up her own painting studio, next to her sewing station at work, because they spent so much more time at work than at home. Then she just started making and it was just so beautiful to see that. And, when she walked into the exhibition, the pride that she took, and she was going around, saying hi to everyone, explaining to people how she made the works. And it was just… it was just so exciting to see that.
Lillyanne: Do you feel like it influenced your practice for your later works?
Aram: Yeah, absolutely. It’s really been important for me that we know that there’s so many artists and creative people within our communities, particularly in immigrant and refugee communities, right. There’s so many artists and creators. A lot of them are still creative in some kind of way, or making in some kind of way. And, if we sort of open our eyes to seeing that, it’s actually everywhere. I’ve been really excited to sort of dig into that and ask those questions.
There’s a sort of corner store here in Chicago called Kim’s Corner Food and Thomas Kong(4). He’s a Korean American immigrant. I think he immigrated here a very long time ago. He’s in his 70s. And he does all this collage in his store and covers every surface with all these collages that he makes.
There was a cafe here, not far from me, a few blocks from my house. And it was owned by Korean American immigrants. The guy that was running the store was building these Soju sculptures, like in the backyard, on the patio of his cafe. Just seeing this, I was like, “There’s so much art in our community. We’re just sort of not calling it art, or we’re not really paying attention.” So that’s been really important for me to think about. Access, right. To art. Who gets to call themselves artists, on what terms? And so, sort of trying to rupture. That is something I’m interested in doing more and more.
Lillyanne: Yeah, that’s also something I’ve been thinking about, as I’m only in my third month in my MFA, like, do I need to continue? And, on the other hand, I’m like, “Wow, being someone who is brown and getting an MFA.” That’s something that’s great to complete or something I’d want to achieve. But, at the same time, it’s like getting an MFA in social practice, when in fact, everyone I know in my communities are technically socially engaged artists. They just don’t have an MFA. It’s just really hard to process that.
Aram: Totally. Yeah, I mean, I think it is… You’re totally right. It’s like –– like I said, there’s so much art and creating within our communities… Like yeah… social practice … [Aram laughing] Exactly. Right. So many people are doing social practice. They just don’t know that that’s what it’s called, or they don’t call it that, or they don’t call themselves artists. And I think that’s hard to navigate. But I think, as an artist in the art world, it’s been exciting to then open those doors. Or not necessarily open those doors, but it’s like, whenever I get an opportunity, I bring other people with me.
Aram: Using my ability to go through those doors, like using my privilege, in order to bring people with me. I think that that’s something that’s pretty important to do. When you are able to access those PWIs (Predominately White Institutions) and get those degrees. You know.
Lillyanne: Mhmmmmmm. So I was wondering, how have you navigated using whiteness as a character within your work? I think for example, Messages from my Ancestors to Our Colonizers, and then the Taking Receipts project, the Citizenship Test Sampler, and then the Official Unofficial Voting Station. Using art to activate a topic around white supremacy and giving people of color agency and their voice, I was wondering, how has the role of whiteness changed in each of those projects? And where do you hope to go further with it?
Aram: What I’m always trying to do is center immigrants, center people of color, center who I am and my needs and my communities’ needs. Maybe it isn’t the first thought that I have, to fight whiteness. I think the first impulse I have is to center my communities. Just centering ourselves, it ends up being a statement against whiteness. Because that just tells us what kind of society we live in. In a lot of ways, it’s just about centering ourselves, telling our stories, and creating opportunities for us to connect with each other through art.
I think in a lot of ways each project sort of focused on different parts of it. So, I think the part where I am directly thinking about fighting against whiteness and white supremacy is Taking Receipts. The Cute Rage Press is a project in collaboration between Ishita Dharap and I. We started creating these stickers and books. Really silly, silly, sort of… it’s a silly project, right. Because how it started was like… Ishita is from India. And we’re both these sort of bubbly, cute, Asian American femmes. You know? We often talk about our cuteness as our weapon. So, we could call out more things, we could get away with more things because of our cuteness. We were thinking about this with the discrimination we were facing. I was like, “You know, I need a log all of this because ultimately, if I ever need to like file a complaint or go file a lawsuit or anything, I need like a meticulous log of all this discrimination I’m facing in my workplace. And that’s how the idea came about for the Taking Receipts book. It was book for us to log our incidents of discrimination so that we are armed with the tools to protect ourselves if we need to. You know?
Aram continued: And then the cute Put it on Blast! label-it stickers came from an also similar conversation where it was just like… There’s so much BS around me. I wish you just had stickers that said, like, “you’re racist,” “you’re sexist,” and “I hate you.” And I just wish I had these stickers. So, I could just label everything around me and give them to people. That’s how these stickers came about. That one, I think, is a direct response to the discrimination and just the bullshit we have to face as people who are marginalized by society.
But the other projects, in a lot of ways, I talked about them as rupturing dominant narrative. And sort of turning it on its head. With the Official Unofficial Voting Station, voting for all the people who really can’t, you know, this rhetoric around voting is that like, “We all can vote, we all have to change the world by voting.” Which is… true. But, we never have that conversation that talks about the fact that more than 28% of the population can’t legally vote.
Aram: Right. And so when we keep talking about, Voting is for everybody. Voting should be for everybody, then let’s do that. And I did that in my art project. Sometimes it’s rupturing that Western liberal language that makes a lot of people invisible, and sort of making it true, or putting it on its head to be like, this is actually not true at all. And this is actually… You know… democracy is always meant to keep certain people—people of color, right— it’s always meant to exploit… and it’s always to exploit us to keep us invisible. You know.
Lillyanne: You mentioned at the end of your article, “How Internalized White Supremacy Manifests for My BIPOC Students in Art School,” that we need a chance to be able to call out each other. You use the word… I think it was nice — no, not nice! I don’t use the word “nice.” But it was like… gently, gently calling someone out during class, and treating everyone with respect. And then I was wondering how… When I get mad, I get mad. And I want to say whatever I want out of my mouth. And you do mention that for some of your students, it’s clumsy and muddy. But the balance of taking care… like BIPOC students taking care of themselves in an MFA program.
While white students be like, “Don’t do call out culture! Don’t cancel us.” And then, you know, like as one of the only brown students, It’s like – no. You can’t use those words. Those words aren’t for you. And it just makes me frustrated.
So I was just wondering how to balance the two in an MFA program, like gently calling someone out, but then also taking care of your rage. And then also a comment on when white people use, “Don’t cancel us.”
Aram: Yeah, yeah. I wrote in that article that white culture is really good… Like, they’re really, really good at appropriating the things, like the critiques that are against them, and using it against us without any self-awareness. Right? And so I think that is definitely what’s happening. People who are always complaining about ‘cancel culture’ just don’t understand what that means. You know. [laughs]
Lillyanne: Uh.. YEAH.
Aram: It’s like, so devoid of context. Right. And so I think that definitely happens.
I think it’s really difficult, for sure, what you’re talking about, because I think in your situation and in a lot of people’s situation, it’s not on you to create that environment. You can’t create that environment, that safe environment by yourself. Right.
So if you don’t trust the people in the room around you, of course, you’re just going to be angry and you’re not going to call them out gently and trust that that will be taken as with love and care. Cause I think, you know, being Korean American, being Asian American, calling each other out is definitely an act of love.
Lillyanne: YES. [ laughs]
Lillyanne: YES. OH MY GOD. [Aram laughs]
Aram: My mom does that. My dad does that. My aunties do that. Like everybody does that. You know. And its cultural. You know?
Lillyanne: YES. IT IS.
Aram: Sometimes it goes far.
Lillyanne: Oh, no, I’ve cried a few times. But, at the end, it’s like “you know we love you.” And I’m like… [Lillyanne and Aram laughs]
Aram: So, there needs to be a balance there. [Aram laughing] But I do think it’s really important that we can tell each other when we’re doing something wrong. We can, you know… And I try to enforce that, of course. Like, my parents hate that you know… when you do something wrong, I’m not going to just wash it over, you’re gonna face those consequences. But, it’s like an act of love to make my child face those consequences with support.
Aram: I think it’s really hard to create that environment. And I think, as a teacher, I’m able to do that in my classroom. Because I’m creating this small bubble. I’m hoping that this small bubble will have an impact that goes outside of the small bubble. Right. And I think that’s why I’m a teacher. That’s why I love being an educator. I can model that. I could create support for students of color, for students who are marginalized, I can provide that support, you know, for all students, right. And if people get it wrong–– not to, not to jump to, you know, being aggressive or hurtful towards them, but also letting them see that this is an opportunity to learn, you know.
Aram: And so I think in that way, it’s difficult because that environment and that culture needs to be there, where people can call each other out, and feel safe doing it. I think we need to talk about that more in terms of, just as a culture, to talk about it more, like calling each other out, telling each other we’re doing something wrong. It’s actually really an act of care.
Lillyanne: Yeah, I feel like caring about wanting to make this space better for yourself, and then also for the future BIPOC students who come in the space. I definitely agree. And, those are my main questions. And I think the final questions would be, where are you going now with all this work? And what is your current work? Anything that you would like to say to end? And any guiding questions that you have for? Or love? Letters of love? Or a sentence of love? For BIPOC students?
Aram: Where do I start? [laughs] I am walking my dog, Bubble Tea Sifuentes (B.T.S. for short). [laughs] Today’s my studio day. I have two upcoming solo exhibitions, early 2022. So, I’ve been really busy working on that.
Aram continued: One body of work I’ve been diving into that sort of really exciting for me is … it comes from the Protest Banner Lending Library.(9) It’s where I’m working with different makers and designers and artists. And we’re creating protest garments. So it’s called a Protest Garment Lab.(10) And thinking about safety, right. I wanted to create these garments that had secret pockets that you could open up and appendages that you can open up, then they turn into these protest banners. And it’s been exciting, because yeah, when it opens up, it highlights this moment of transformation. And then it really emboldens the wear, you know, and then you could put it back away and it becomes discrete again. So, I’ve been working on that at the moment. It’s been really fun.
And I think that’s something that’s so important that I tell young people is that sometimes we get sort of bogged down, or, not bogged down, but we have this sense of responsibility that we have to tell these very serious stories, because what we address is very serious.
But never forget that we also come from, you know, joy and play and, you know, even! even! In our most hardest moments, I think, as people, we always come together and find ways to have fun. I think that’s been really exciting for me, to have so much fun making this new body of work.
I think the sort of advice and love letter I have for BIPOC students is that the art world needs you. [ laughs] You! You! We need you so badly, and it’s so important that you’re making the work that you do by telling your own stories, connecting to your communities. Just don’t forget that. Cause a lot of times being in a PWI… It’s hard and you are constantly negotiating, Should I even be here? But, we need you, you should be here. I need you!
And I’ve been trying to get my child who is six years old to listen to this one K-pop song just cause it’s so affirming. And so I think you guys should listen to that. It’s awesome. It’s called 달라달라 DALLA DALLA by Itzy. But it’s just the best. The main chorus is like, “I love myself, and I’m a little different, different.” I just love that song and I was playing it for my child all morning.
Lillyanne: Yeah, I get to design the webpage for the article. So I’ll definitely put the video as the first hyperlink.
Aram: I know! Isn’t it so cute that there’s like this K-Pop song that just talks about how I love myself because I’m unique and I’m different. This is so cute. This is the future. This is what I need.
Lillyanne: Yes! [Lillyanne and Aram laugh] Well, thank you so much for your time.
Aram: Yeah, thank you. Let’s be in touch. Let me know what you’re up to. Send me updates, add me to your newsletter and things like that.
Lillyanne: I’ll start a newsletter just for that. [Lillyanne and Aram laugh] Well, have a great day. Bye bye.
(1) Mural Arts of Philly’s Public Art & Civic Engagement Capacity Building Initiative 2020-2023.
(2) Aram’s “How Internalized White Supremacy Manifests for My BIPOC Students in Art School,” Art Journal Open, 2021.
(3) Younghye Han: “My Mother’s First Exhibition, 2016.
(4) About Thomas Kong.
(5) Messages from my Ancestors to Our Colonizers, 2016.
(6) The Cute Rage Press: Taking Receipts and Put it on Blast!, 2016-present.
(7) Citizenship Test Sampler, 2012-present.
(8) Official Unofficial Voting Station 2020 and Official Unofficial Voting Station 2016.
(9) Protest Banner Lending Library, 2016-present.
(10) Protest Garment Lab, 2021-present.
Lillyanne Phạm (LP) (they/bạn/she/em/chị) was raised by Việt refugees in a trailer park near cornfields and suburbs (b. 1997). LP is a multimedia storyteller, placekeeping artist, social media scholar, and cultural worker. LP grounds their work in ancestral knowledge, the world wide web, and community-powered safety/sanctuary. Since graduating from Reed College in 2020, LP and their work has been rooted in East Portland exploring the power of BIPOC youth decision making. LP also builds community as a member of Metro’s Equity Advisory Committee (EAC), the Contingent’s SINE and ELI network, 2022 Atabey Medicine Apprenticeship, and the O82 Art Crew. You can follow LP’s work on IG: @lillyannepham or website: lillyannepham.com
Aram Han Sifuentes (she/they) is a fiber and social practice artist, writer, and educator who works to center immigrant and disenfranchised communities. Her work often revolves around skill sharing, specifically sewing techniques, to create multiethnic and intergenerational sewing circles, which become a place for empowerment, subversion, and protest. Her works have been exhibited at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (Chicago), Hyde Park Art Center (Chicago), Chicago Cultural Center (Chicago), Pulitzer Arts Foundation (St. Louis), MCA Denver (Denver), and Moody Center for the Arts (Houston). Upcoming solo exhibitions will be presented at moCa Cleveland (Cleveland) in January 2022, and Skirball Cultural Center (Los Angeles) in April 2022. Aram is a 2016 Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow, 2016 3Arts Award and 2021 3Arts Next Level Awardee, and 2020 Map Fund Grantee. Her project Protest Banner Lending Library was a finalist for the Beazley Design Awards at the Design Museum (London, UK) in 2016. She earned her BA in Art and Latin American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and her MFA in Fiber and Material Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is currently an associate professor, adjunct, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. https://www.aramhansifuentes.com/
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