Sewing discourse

A new public art engagement project aims to raise awareness about the global refugee crisis

This Saturday’s 25 Million Stitches Sewing Circle will let participants sew their own panels. The final project will make its public debut in 2020 to commemorate World Refugee Day (June 20).

This Saturday’s 25 Million Stitches Sewing Circle will let participants sew their own panels. The final project will make its public debut in 2020 to commemorate World Refugee Day (June 20).

Photos courtesy of Jennifer Kim Sohn

Check out the 25 Million Stitches Sewing Circle, 2-5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 17 at Verge Center for the Arts, 625 S St. Participation is free, but donations are accepted and will benefit the International Rescue Committee;

What do 25.9 million people look like?

That’s the question Jennifer Kim Sohn set out to answer as she grappled with the enormity of the world’s refugee crisis.

It was 2016, and the Sacramento artist had seen news footage of Syrian and African refugees, but the images on her television felt remote—distant in both geographical and emotional terms.

Instead of settling into apathy, however, Sohn took to her art, sketching images of refugee families she found on the internet. She also studied the scope of the problem. That’s when she landed on the 25.9 million statistic—the estimated number of refugees around the globe, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

“It was such a huge number, 25.9 million people; I couldn’t wrap my head around it,” says Sohn, a multimedia artist whose previous works have explored topics such as climate change and homelessness.

Her research eventually launched 25 Million Stitches, a community art installation in progress that, depending on whom you ask, is either politically charged or steadfastly nonpartisan.

What is clear is the project’s form: thousands of embroidered panels, each representing 100 refugees. On Aug. 17 at Verge Center for the Arts, others can contribute via the 25 Million Stitches Sewing Circle, where participants can craft panels or take one home to sew. The final result will be displayed at Verge in a 2020 exhibit that will coincide with World Refugee Day on June 20.

Initially, Sohn asked a handful of textile artists to collaborate. Then, she decided to expand her vision.

“It dawned on me it should be a community project; it would provide an opportunity for connecting [to others],” Sohn says.

That connection, she adds, helps others feel they’re getting involved, even in a small way, which in turn fosters reflection and compassion.

Sohn has rallied approximately 500 collaborators to date but estimates she’ll need 2,500 total. The project, which she originally designed as panels that measure 15 inches high by 65 inches wide, now also includes pieces measuring 15 inches by 32 inches. In all, it makes for a time-consuming, sometimes daunting endeavor. To complete a panel takes two or more weeks to complete, but that’s also intentional, she says.

“I like that people are using their hands; it’s a huge donation of time,” Sohn says.

The panels are tactile, personal, hand-sewn representations of the refugee crisis, many adorned with elaborate embroidery. Despite its form, however, Sohn considers the installation “data-driven art.”

“It represents this statistic,” she says. “Hopefully that gets people to step back say, ’This is a much bigger problem.’”

That “data-driven” perspective intersects with another key element of 25 Million Stitches: the way many viewers may see sewing as traditionally “feminine.”

While Sohn says that she understands that tendency, it’s a misnomer. “I don’t think of it as a feminine craft at all,” she says.

In other countries and cultures, she adds, sewing and other crafts aren’t based on gender. They’re necessary, everyday tasks.

Still, she said, others viewing the project through the lens of folksy craftsmanship serves a purpose, too.

“Stitching, embroidery and crochet—they all get people to lower their guards when the subject matter is such a difficult one to deal with,” Sohn says.

This project draws inevitable parallels to the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which commemorated the lives of those who died of AIDS-related complications. Launched in 1987 and displayed globally over the years, the sheer breadth of the AIDS Memorial Quilt is a testament to the visual power that exists at the intersection of art and activism.

“I would be thrilled for this project to be as successful as the AIDS quilt,” Sohn says.

Although refugees are a hot-button topic, particularly those from Central America being detained or turned away at the U.S.-Mexico border, Sohn says 25 Million Stitches is meant to be nonpartisan, intended to bridge opposing viewpoints.

“I feel like rather than taking any sides, I want to just have people talk about it,” she says. “I want this project to be taken up by people on both sides of the aisle and just create dialogue.”

The panels, she says, are simply meant to inspire empathy and a broadening of perspective. “I want to reach the compassionate part of people whether they’re on one side of the argument or the other,” she says.

By that reasoning, however, the project is inherently political, says Liv Moe, Verge Center’s executive director.

“I can see where Jennifer is coming from, but at the same time, we’re reaching a pivotal time in society. If we don’t acknowledge the culprits, then there is no reason to correct them,” Moe says.

When President Trump refers to a Hispanic “invasion” at campaign rallies and on Twitter, his critics say it’s not difficult to connect his comments to the anti-immigrant manifesto left behind by the alleged shooter in the recent mass shooting in El Paso.

But refugees flee to the U.S. from around the world, including from what Trump derided as “shithole countries” in Africa and the Middle East. Between last October and Aug. 2, nearly 25,000 refugees arrived in the U.S. from Latin America, East Asia and Europe. Africa had the largest numbers, with 59.6%, according to the national Refugee Processing Center.

Sacramento is a hub for refugees. According to Sacramento World Refugee Day, more than 5,000 refugees arrived here in 2018.

Refugees, by their very nature are political, Moe says, and the panels can have an impact on how we view them.

“Raising awareness about these issues and shedding light on them is a part of how you fix them,” Moe says.

Both she and Sohn say that, ideally, 25 Million Stitches will encourage a deeper reflection and consideration of the world at large.

“It creates an easy entry for people—the thousands of hours it will represent of people meditating on this subject,” Moe says.

Sohn says the panels represent a way to find humanity in a traumatic situation.

“I want people to see the refugee as a human being in need of support, someone who can’t provide their children with water or find a place to sleep,” she says. “That’s a good place to deal with this issue.”