Drawing on personal experiences of alienation, assimilation and identity construction, artist and educator ERIN MINCKLEY CHLAGHMO explores the shifting line between experiences of belonging and not belonging in her textile-based work. Her large-scale sculptures are amalgamations of found and printed fabrics, combining patterns which carry seemingly disparate cultural, racial and religious associations. Her use of textiles highlights the similarity between animal (scales and plumage) and human (armor and clothing) means of camouflage and protection. Erin received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012. Recent exhibitions include the first Interfaith Biennial at Dominican University (River Forest, Illinois), Fiber Options: Material Explorations at the Maryland Federation of Art (Annapolis, Maryland and Chroma at the Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts (Grand Rapids, Michigan). Flags Mistaken for Stars, Erin's collaborative project with artist Eric Wall, is on view on the roof of Lillstreet Art Center throughout October 2013, and there is a closing reception for the group show Fiber Optics on October 11, 2013 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Erin spends half the year in Chicago and the other half in Morocco, where she and her husband run an educational tourism company.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Could you talk generally about the interaction between the decorative and the protective in nature and in culture?
Erin M. Chlaghmo: I began to research camouflage a few years ago. I was interested in armor structures found in nature, such as fish scales, feathers, etc. There was this interesting moment where I realized that manmade armors are replicating those found on animals, and patterns that hide military vehicles, aircraft and soldiers are mimicking the landscape of a given region. Decoration is actually a survival technique. Without it, the form would be revealed as it moves or in contrast to the scenery. So, this is an integral part of how I build a motif or pattern structure. The individual unit or figure is disguised by the background or final form through the use of repetition and accumulation. The correlation to culture is that an individual can attempt to stand out or blend in depending on who they surround themselves with. Notions of belonging and un-belonging are themes that drive the work I make.
OPP: Why are textiles the perfect vehicle to explore belonging and barriers to belonging?
EMC: Fabric has a historical relationship to the body through garments, adornment, rights of passage and nomadic dwellings. Fabrics shape our lives. We feel at once welcome and familiar with certain cloths. We make associations to our personal experiences when we see materials like acrylic felt or wool or any material. Much of the work I make aims to start a conversation. An enormous textile like Phobia creates a relationship to the viewer's body and the architectural space, alluding to the infinite. It is bigger than me and you, and it is out of control. It is both scary and seductive.
OPP: You use both found textiles and print your own fabrics for use in your sculptures. Do you tend to print in response to what you find? Or do you seek out the textiles you need in order to execute your vision?
EMC: Pattern has the ability to signify culture. A textile's motif is a signifier of origin or utility: like a cross, an American flag or a Southwestern diamond shape. People have an immediate reaction to imagery on fabric and make assumptions about the content when it is recognizable. This is a complicated language to speak because I'm working with a plethora of borrowed and imagined patterns. It's sometimes very difficult to speak about personal experience through images that are collectively already familiar. I'm trying to mine imagery that is not familiar so that a viewer has to make a choice about their own relationship to the meaning of the work. I'm trying to ask the question: Can images belong to a certain culture? Can I borrow and alter them? What does it mean if I do this?
Many years ago, I went to JoAnn's Fabric looking for recognizable patterns. I found so many prints that shocked me: Confederate flags, cowboys and Indians, Kwanza, Virgin Mary, etc. I was disappointed that the only imagery of people was so cliché and politically incorrect. I wondered, "What in the world would you make out of this fabric? Why do people buy this? Do they buy this?" I couldn't imagine a pair of curtains or a quilt or a child's dress made from these prints! I couldn't see any imagery that I related to, even though it was familiar. I had hoped to make cloth that told a story about my life. I bought them all and decided to make an artwork that expressed my frustration. I wanted to comment on the images by painting and inserting imagery into the pre-existing patterns. I painted the Mormon temple into one fabric with an idyllic scene of churches because I felt right at home in a sea of steeples. I painted a small silhouetted teepee into the distant background of a pattern with silhouettes of cowboys on horses to represent the lack of historical accuracy when depicting the Wild West. I more or less left my paintbrush behind when I finished that body of work. I began to manipulate the fabric itself instead of adding pictures on top.
OPP: In particular, you use a lot of Moroccan textiles. Could you tell us about your personal relationship to Morocco? Did your interest in Morocco stem from your work or did the work grow out of personal experience there?
EMC: I lead a sort of double life. My
husband is a Moroccan immigrant, whose family members all still live in
Morocco. We travel back and forth to visit them, and we also run a
summer tourism company there. I am a cultural translator of sorts. When
I'm in Morocco, my family there calls me Hayat. I don't even go by my
own name. My habits are extremely different, and I speak Arabic
fluently. So, I have assimilated, I guess, into this other society, but
only for part of the year. This truly has deepened my art practice
because it is the research I need to enrich the work I make. Living
somewhere where I am between belonging and being foreign, understanding
and rejecting cultural norms, being understood and feeling helpless. . .
these experiences repeat themselves in other facets of my life—and
likely most people have felt this way at some juncture. Adapting and
assimilating takes us back to the beginning of this conversation, where I
talked about camouflage. I can't change my race, but everything else
can change. I feel like a chameleon, aiming to adapt to every new
experience in life as if I was meant to be there. As if I belong.
The textiles brought home from Morocco are an incontrovertible match to ideas already present in my work. Repetition, infinity, accumulation and ascending shapes are present in zillij, Moroccan tile patterns, and other architectural designs. The fabric there is rich with color and texture and is inexpensive. So, I line plain fabrics with it to give them added detail.
OPP: Assimilation is often used as a bad word here in the United States where our nation was built by immigrants and where we value personal identity so strongly. There are negative associations when immigrants feel compelled or are forced to assimilate to a dominant culture, and there’s a sense that we all lose something if they lose their culture. Besides we are all immigrants, too. . . except for the indigenous Native Americans. But choosing to be a chameleon is different; there’s less fear that something important will be lost forever. Thinking about adaptability through a biological lens makes it seems less urgent that we hold so tightly to our identities. Is identity itself just a protective armor, a temporary condition? Would it be as easy to assimilate if you moved to Morocco forever and never came back to the United States?
EMC: Identity is so much more
malleable than one thinks. There are grandmas who used to be punk
rockers. There are Muslims who used to be Mormons. The assumption that
once you change significant identifier that you can't go back is not
true. You may never practice the old religion, just like grandma is no
longer going to see the Ramones in concert. But, she still retains that
part of her (even if in secret). Identity is like collage. You keep
adding and adding; layers are covered up and perhaps "lost forever." But
they're still there underneath.
Also, people don't chose their family of origin or their race, but everything else can be changed. I grew up in a semi-Catholic, middle-class American family in Utah, and I converted to Islam and speak Arabic. Does the changed identity imply that I am less authentic? I propose that I am my best self, the person I was meant to be, when speaking in Arabic and fasting during Ramadan. I am a very flexible and adaptable person at my core. I like to accommodate others and see from their point of view. I am empathetic. I can blend in and communicate better in a foreign environment if I "do as the Romans do." That applies to every situation in life, not just living abroad. There's a fine line here between impostor and chameleon. I'm not pretending I'm Moroccan. I am fully aware of my whiteness and my origin, and so is everyone else. But, I am just trying to survive. The real me is inside. She is constantly donning different "armor,” not readying for battle, but adapting to my environment.
Many people live their life refusing to adapt. They never enter situations or environments that make them uncomfortable. They never associate with people that are not like them. This is the scary dilemma because, the longer you live your life afraid to adapt or refusing to relate to another who is physically or culturally unlike you, the more likely you are to build fear or hatred for the other. The "other" becomes a mystified person, assumptions are made, stereotypes are cast and barriers are built between you, but this border line is not real or tangible. This is the purpose of my life's work, both as an artist and as an educator. How do we break down these borders?
I also want to respond to the point you made about the word assimilation having a negative connotation. In the late 1800s, the first "Indian" boarding schools in America forced Native students to shave their heads, change their names, speak English and practice Catholicism. There is a heavy feeling when considering that assimilation could be forced upon a set of people towards a second group's aims. And although terribly atrocities were suffered by these children, they surely retained their identities. Their children are the ones who suffered loss of "authentic culture" and tradition. By the 1970s, 60,000 students attended these schools. The societies were considered "civilized," and the government abandoned the effort to educate Native Americans separately. Generations later, there is a huge push to educate youth about the Native languages and art forms. Now, many are uninterested and would rather play video games or get lunch with their friends at McDonald's. So. . . I'll need to ponder for a while about assimilation's reverse effects along a timeline of a few generations. I doubt that my children's children will regret not growing up the way I did. I'm hoping they appreciate living a life straddling two extremely different cultures.
OPP: You mentioned scales, which are are evoked in abstract pieces like Phobia (2013) and Exterior Perceptions (2013). They are used as armor in pieces like Choose the Right (CTR) (2012). They are decorative in your painted scale studies and mesmerizing in your latex wall painting Infinite Repetition (2012). Could you talk about this recurring visual motif in your work?
EMC: From small to large, overlapping and infinite, the scale or shingle pattern first appeared in a painting I made of a peacock. It was a labored process to create that artwork, and ultimately it didn't work to have spent so much time on the details of each feather. The thing I found that I liked the most about the bird was the layer pattern in her feather structure. This has been present in almost every work I've made since. The felt layers overlap (which hides the origin of each loop from sight) and get larger towards the bottom, and my paintings start at a central flower shape or tear drop and emanate outwards. The suits of armor all have this structure, too. Scales have for some reason kept my interest and flawlessly connect many bodies of work that are disparate in medium. Ultimately, it is a form that is abstract enough to be many things and nothing at once.
It is also a perfect way to illustrate the unit—the individual or unique original—repeated into an implied infinity. It becomes less about the singular and more about the plural or the gestalt. The human mind has the tendency to see the forest and not the tree. Another reference to camouflage and assimilation, the theories of gestalt name our brain's need to group things together by likeness, proximity, continuity and common fate and perhaps the human desire to belong. I guess, it's another metaphor for society. One worshipper is lost amongst a church full or worshippers; one prayer is lost amongst a lifetime of prayers. The scale is a physical representation of homogeneity and diversity amongst the whole.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Everything You Need Is Already Here (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.