You Know Who Rules? is Broadly's December interview series highlighting women and non-binary people who accomplished incredible things during the dumpster fire of a year that was 2017.
Aram Han Sifuentes is a Chicago-based artist, writer, and curator who started making protest banners soon after the election of President Donald Trump.
As a non-citizen, Sifuentes says she didn't feel safe joining the massive protests against the president, so she decided to find another way to let people know they should "Dump Trump." "While others were protesting and doing important work, I also felt that me and my community couldn’t go out there and do the same things," she told Broadly.
What started out as a small workshop in her home grew into the Protest Banner Lending Library, an archive of protest banners that participants can check out, run by Sifuentes and artists Verónica Casado Hernández, Ishita Dharap, and Tabitha Anne Kunkes.
Sifuentes spoke with Broadly about what she learned running the library over the past year.
BROADLY: How did the Protest Banner Lending Library come to exist?
ARAM HAN SIFUENTES: I only recently became a citizen. I’ve been living here for over 25 years and as a non-citizen immigrant, I was very aware of how precarious my situation was. Even as a legal resident, things can change very quickly for us and things can be taken away from us. I studied immigration for my undergraduate degree so I was super aware of the immigration system and I navigated most of my life in this state of fear and also constantly trying to prove myself that me and my family deserve to be here. That state is how I’ve navigated the world.
As a non-citizen, not being able to vote during the election, and then Trump being elected with his really hateful anti-immigration rhetoric, I was feeling so defeated and like I want to do something to confront it. I also realized that I didn’t feel safe going out, I have a small child and am not a citizen. An arrest at a protest can really complicate my legal status. Those kind of thoughts and feeling frustrated that I can’t do something about it.
Many people didn’t realize that situation, too. They think: If you’re not happy, go out and protest. That’s a privileged space. So I started to make these banners and it turned into a lending library.
What was it like growing the library this past year?
The Protest Banner Lending Library grew so big so quick and I’m really proud of how many people have been able to participate and engage with the project. When I first started it, I didn’t know if it would function the way that I thought it could function. Now I think it has actually surpassed my expectation and I can’t say that many things work that way. The fact that it’s a functioning library—people still continue to make banners, donate banners, and on a weekly basis, people are checking out banners. That’s really rewarding to me that I along with my collaborators were able to create a project that has become a full functioning library.
Is there a moment in time where you recognized the library had taken on a life of its own?
That happened pretty quickly. I was doing these workshops and the first ones were at my apartment. I didn’t know who was going to come, let’s just see. Most of my art projects really are experiments because they are so participatory and work with different communities, mainly immigrant communities. I usually think I don’t know how many people will be interested but let’s just see how it works out. The first workshop was at my place and the second one we had twenty plus people saying they wanted to come over. Then I was like, I can’t accommodate that in my apartment.
Since the election and starting the project, we have constant requests for workshops to take place in different places, schools, museums, galleries, community organizations. So the workshop part has also taken a life of its own. It was so great to see that there is such a demand for it and that people were so excited about learning how to make their own protest banners.
You’re in a very unique position because you’re meeting so many diverse groups of people who are all unified in one cause: resisting this administration.
It’s quite an emotional rollercoaster. Sometimes I’m like, this doesn’t matter. To be honest there are times where I think is this good enough. But I also get to constantly meet people who are organizing and are making sure that their voices are heard and that’s very hopeful to see.
Just recently with the November election and Doug Jones's unexpected victory in Alabama, we’ve seen a little bit of change. Do these victories bring you hope?
Women of color really get it, we’ve been doing really important work for a very long time. We’ve been trying to bring attention to the fact that America and the neoliberalism have really great flaws. With Doug Jones, it is exciting but at the same time it also validates that we have so much work to still do. What was it 63 percent of white women voted for Roy Moore? That really hurts.
Obviously Doug Jones was a victory because of all the black votes, particularly black women votes. I’m excited that kind of energy and mobilization happened in the black community in Alabama but that white America was still willing to put this pedophile in office, that shows me that there is so much work to be done.
What are you looking forward to next year?
We are trying to take the library to other cities. In the next few months we will be trying out different satellites of the library. One will be in Philadelphia, one in Boston, and we are currently in conversation about one happening in LA. We are testing it out and seeing what works. But I’ll be going to these places, jumpstarting the project with workshops in the cities and what gets made in those workshops will live in a certain place and then go into circulation there. Hopefully I’ll be able to find people in these cities that are willing to do more workshops and grow this library.