On March 2, the Supreme Court will assess the constitutionality of two provisions of the 2013 Texas law HB2 that have already forced 21 of the state's 40 abortion clinics to close. If upheld, this law will leave the entire state of Texas with only about ten facilities. In response to these measures that place extreme barriers to abortion care in Texas, Brooklyn-based fiber artist Chi Nguyen is organizing a public embroidery art project that will visualize the 5.4 million Texas women of reproductive age who will be affected by this bill.
Nguyen, in collaboration with the Textile Arts Center, is holding public stitch-ins for participants to stitch tally marks onto swatches of fabric that will eventually become part of a massive quilt. The quilt, which could end up being more than 86 x 86 feet, will represent the number of women whose access to abortion is being compromised by this bill. The embroidered quilt will accompany those attending a rally, organized by the Center for Reproductive Rights, outside of the Supreme Court in DC on March 2.
The artist. Photo courtesy of Chi Nguyen.
Critics of anti-abortion measures refer to laws such as HB2 as "sham laws," indicating that they run under the guise of improving women's health when they're essentially hoisting unnecessary barriers to a safe abortion. The law requires all abortion clinics to meet hospital-like standards of an ambulatory surgical center and for the clinics to have admitting privileges to a hospital within 30 miles of the center. The requirements would amount to millions of dollars in updates that a coalition of medical experts, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, say are unnecessary.
The numbers show that banning abortion does not actually decrease the number of abortions. Instead, it pushes women to seek more dangerous means of terminating their pregnancies. RH Reality Check has reported that since HB2 passed, the number of self-induced abortions has increased. In addition to increasing harm for all women seeking abortion care, the law places an undue burden on the working class. "Texas is home to a large population of immigrants and communities of color, as well as areas of significant poverty. If HB2 takes effect, it will make it vastly more difficult—if not impossible—for low-income women to travel to a clinic to get the health care they need," Nguyen said.
After traveling to Texas in 2015 for National Women's Day to speak with women of the Rio Grande Valley and learning about the dismal state of reproductive health services there, Nguyen decided to make art about it. I spoke with her about her embroidery project and how she's aiming to get the word out about the urgent consequences of this anti-abortion bill.
VICE: You're an artist living in Brooklyn who came to the US from Vietnam as a kid. Can you tell me why you became involved in a project that is about Texas women?
Chi Nguyen: To me, it's not a Texas issue but an all-of-us issue. The decision of this case will impact the state of reproductive and abortion care for decades across the country. It could be you, me, or the women we love who might have to face these hurdles when we need a safe and legal abortion. Texas is also where my niece is growing up. It scares me to think that she might have less control over her body than I did—than women in 1973 did before Roe v. Wade was decided.
What did the women in the Rio Grande Valley say was happening in Texas?
One woman could not get a Pap smear because the waiting period was from six months to a year. Another mother, whose application for low-cost health insurance was rejected, could not afford a biopsy for her daughter when lumps were found in her breasts. This is evidence of how our health care system is failing women. However, these women are not powerless. They call themselves "poderosas" or "the strong women" and have organized themselves to fight for their reproductive rights in the Rio Grande Valley. I urge everyone to read their testimonies from the Women's Human Rights Hearing in March 2015.
Your past projects included one where you cut your hair, solicited other's hair donations, and weaved them in an act of solidarity with LGBT youth, suicide prevention, and anti-bullying. Is most of your work based on some sort of activism?
As a queer woman of color and an immigrant, I use my art as a way to fight for social justice. The foundation of my practice is rooted in personal experiences. In that performance, the act of cutting my hair and encouraging the public to donate theirs was meant to create a space for a collective exploration of emotions. That project was dedicated to the first woman I loved, her suicide, and my subsequent coming out experience after her passing. With the 5.4 Million and Counting project, I hope the public will use the quilt as a stepping stone to learn more about the Supreme Court case and the condition of reproductive health care in the US today.
So tell me about the stitch-ins...
For the New York stitch-ins, we're providing embroidery hoops, fabric, needles, thread, and background information for people to learn about the case. I'm also encouraging people to bring in a special piece of textile and to use whatever thread in order to create their own aesthetic. The reason behind that is because everyone has such a different aesthetic in embroidering, and we want to visualize the amount of different people who are participating and supporting the right to abortion access.
Swatch by Kyra Berman-Gestring. Photo courtesy of 5point4million.tumblr.com.
How will the quilt function at the rally?
I really wanted to use a quilt because it represents comfort, safety, and security, and the lack of access to abortion care and reproductive health care in general is anything but that. The quilt represents those things for me and also creates a sense of unity from supporters across the US who can send in swatches, which we will sew together. Right now, I have no idea how many swatches we will get by March 2. If we don't get enough, we will hold stitch-ins at the rally, but if we finish, we will use it as a banner. However, it won't just be a banner. It will also provide warmth.
How does the fact that stitching and textile arts have historically been a woman's craft fit in?
I honestly love the idea of the subversive stitch where you reclaim that form of craft. As a woman, [I think] anyone who identifies as a woman [should] challenge the idea of what a woman's craft is, and if it is a woman's craft, reclaim it and use it as an activist's tool to make sure that we have the right to our bodies, our choices, and our destinies. I think that's the beauty of craftivism.
I've seen photos on your Instagram from other people who are sending in swatches. Is there a way for people outside of New York City to participate?
Yes. There are also going to be stitch-ins held by people who heard of this project online. I recently got a comment from a clinic worker who will be holding a stitch-in at her clinic. There are a lot of fiber artists sending photos through Instagram and email showing that they are embroidering these lines. It's incredible to see that happening. It's incredible that we can use our embroidery and own mediums to support a cause and a movement.
The last NYC stitch-in will be Sunday, February 28 from 11 AM to 6 PM at Textile Arts Center, Manhattan Studio 26 West 8th St. New York, NY 10011.