Word on the Street: Banners Give Voice to Women’s Political Discontent

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WHITE HOUSE Jenny Holzer

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

White House by Jenny Holzer

For Iranian-American artist Amy Khoshbin, a pair of scissors could be the start of a revolution.

In the days before the 2017 Women’s March, Khoshbin started getting together with friends and artists in New York to make banners for the march. They grabbed scissors and long strips of felt and got to work. Each banner was a different commentary on the tense political divide exposed by the 2016 election, but the largest one was a rough translation from the Greek tragedy Antigone: “I was made for love not hate.”

The energy and community she felt out on the street inspired Khoshbin to create something that would last past the march. Together with her sister Jennifer, as part of their art collective House of Trees, she began reaching out to artists and writers so they could create a series of banners. The ensuing exhibition, titled Word on the Street, made its debut last year in Times Square as part of the Times Square Alliance public art program. For the first time, the exhibit will be showcased outside of New York at Artpace now through April 28.

“We were getting really excited about expressing our political discontent and being able to do that in solidarity as females and artists,” Khoshbin said. “It was inspiring seeing us all come together and use our collective power to raise our voices in a culture where they’re typically undervalued. It felt like we could make change.”

The sister duo curated and participated in the project, which resulted in banners of different shapes and sizes, in collaboration with an all-female team of artists and writers such as Canadian poet Anne Carson and Cuban artist Tania Bruguera.

The banners are simple but powerful personal statements from their creators, each forming messages of acceptance, change, or outraged calls to action. In one banner from San Antonio-based author and poet Naomi Shihab Nye, outstretched fingers on a multicolored hand read, “Open Palms Hold More.” Another, from Bruguera, reads, “When the rights of immigrants are denied, the rights of citizens are at risk.”

When House of Trees approached Nye about writing some text for the banners, she was immediately excited by the challenge. She wrote pages and pages of “mini poems,” reflecting on her own perspective as the daughter of an immigrant and as a female artist.

“I’m very opposed to the idea that because there’s so much dissension, people should just stay quiet,” Nye said. “I can’t stay silent. I can’t pretend everything’s OK. Being part of the art community and participating in something like this reminds me that we’re not alone.”

Word on the Street at Artpace

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Word on the Street is on display at Artpace.

It was important to Amy and Jennifer Khoshbin that the exhibit come to San Antonio, where Jennifer makes her home, but because they hired seamstresses from San Antonio’s Center for Refugee Services to create the banners.

“The banners were originally part of a public protest, but because we want to affect and inspire as many people as possible,” Jennifer Khoshbin said. “Because of that, we wanted this to be about more than artists inside of an art institution, we wanted to reach outside of that to the community and work with the Center for Refugee Services as well.”

Since they began working on Word on the Street, the sisters intended for the project to keep growing and changing over time. In the future, Amy Khoshbin says she hopes they’ll be able to include original pieces that the women at the Center for Refugee Services create themselves.

Even now, the Khoshbins each place an emphasis on the do-it-yourself nature of the project. Felt was specifically chosen as the material for the banners because it’s such an easily accessible and inexpensive art material meant to encourage the people who see the exhibit to try their hand at making a banner. But no matter how the exhibit may change and grow with the addition of new artists, the original banners will remain as a reminder.

“The idea is to create an archive of the poetry and artistry of how we’re feeling in this moment so our ideas can persist,” Amy Khoshbin said. “Change is possible if we keep reminding ourselves what we’re capable of. We as women have the power to voice our own ideas and hopefully inspire others to do the same on a daily basis.”

During the exhibit’s original run, Nye said she often used to receive emails from people who viewed her banners. She said many of them remarked upon how her words had sparked an idea or turned around their day. Now that the exhibit is in San Antonio, she hopes a new audience will be inspired.

“Language and art help us see our place in the fabric of the world,” Nye said. “We don’t just see art and move on, we think about it and we feel changed. Art provokes you, it gives you ideas. That’s what this project is about.”

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