Portrait of a Textile Worker makes one person among millions of unseen workers, visible. Her image was constructed with thirty thousand clothing labels stitched together over two years. The idea came from a simple observation. One day while shopping in a department store I noticed huge signs everywhere -- Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne, Kathy Lee and so on. They were all proper names. I'd recently met two garment workers and realized that by contrast, their identity was rarely thought of and often deliberately hidden. That anonymity could be undone by assembling a view of one worker using the well-known names on apparel she produced. The portrait is based on a photograph of a young textile worker in Bangladesh by Charles Kernaghan*
The project began with a massive campaign to get the labels. Thousands of people responded, painstakingly cutting out garment tags one by one. I used the labels in numerous ways to create the image. For example, text on a contrasting background was used as a gradation, text borders were ironed back leaving a unified block of tiny words to form specific tones, names were used as segments in a line and combined with others like lines in a drawing. From twenty feet away, the composition is a representational image of a remote place. As you move closer, the illusionistic devices dissolve into labels as intimately familiar as your own clothes.
I have always been fascinated with how the work of art becomes an artwork. Twenty years ago I started out as a public sculptor. My early work included large-scale installations that engaged hundreds of people in the art making process. Their involvement demonstrated the potential for people's labor to become a form of public communication. Iron Workers and Engineers that participated in various art projects for example, contributed to the visual message in significant ways. In 1991 I started making art quilts in addition to sculpture. It is often solitary, repetitious work. In Portrait of a Textile Worker however, the repetition of thousands of other people cutting their labels is retained in the piece. It amplifies the presence of the woman we finally see.
Terese Agnew © 2005
*The photograph was taken in 2002 by Charles Kernaghan, the Director of the National Labor Committee on an undercover visit to a factory in Bangladesh.
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