Make it sew: MOCA-Tucson features exhibit of reclaimed T-shirts

click to enlarge Make it sew: MOCA-Tucson features exhibit of reclaimed T-shirts
Logan Havens
Installation view, Pia Camil: Three Works (Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson, April 10 – September 19, 2021). Photograph by Logan Havens. Courtesy the artist; Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/ New York/ Tokyo; Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson.

During the last few weeks, when the evening sky starts to dim, a downtown building has been beaming out gorgeous colors into the streets: magenta, pink, green, yellow, royal red.  

The nightly light show comes through the big glass doors of MOCA-Tucson contemporary art museum. 

But the source of this rainbow beauty, astonishingly, is a batch of tossed-out T-shirts. 

Inside the museum’s enormous Great Hall, the shirts—brilliantly dyed and sewn together into giant tarps—dangle from the ceiling. Tethered to ship rigging, they shift and sail high above the gallery. 

In honor of the T-shirts’ lowly origins, the artist, Pia Camil of Mexico City, calls the work “Bara, Bara, Bara,” the chant used by Mexican street vendors. It’s short for “barato,” Spanish for “cheap.”

Part painting, part soft sculpture, this bold fiber work is visually dazzling and intellectually intense. “Bara” has entirely taken over the Great Hall, once a garage for mammoth fire trucks, back when the building was a fire station. It’s big enough to house her immense, three-part installation. 

Below the swinging “Bara,” there’s a floor component, the “Autonomous Space Rug,” where visitors can sit or lie down and gaze up at the color canopy. The carpeting came from a remnant outlet in Phoenix, and Camil designed its swirling patterns. 

A third piece of the installation, “Air Out Your Dirty Laundry,” is outside on the museum’s front patio. Instead of a flag blowing in the breeze on the outdoor flag pole, old shirts and jeans flutter on a laundry line. Locals are invited to donate old clothes of their own to fly on the laundry line. They can also apply to use the rug as a place to conduct socially distanced book clubs or other events.

The work is beautiful and even joyful. But it levels a critique of consumption, labor exploitation and the environmental destruction wrought by the manufacture of clothing, especially the use of dyes and way too much water. It’s estimated that it takes some 713 gallons of water to make one T-shirt, from cotton field to factory to final washing. Those gallons would be enough drinking water to sate one thirsty adult for well over two years. 

Camil’s work follows the life cycle of the shirts. The Tees begin with orders made in the U.S. when a football team, say, wants to celebrate a win, or a dealer wants to sell Irish shirts on St. Patrick’s Day. The job typically goes to underpaid workers in Latin America. The shirts they make, emblazoned with words, and thick with slogans, travel to the U.S. 

The proud Irish Americans and the happy football fans wear them for a while, but soon enough they pass them on to a charity or otherwise get rid of them. As curator Laura Copelin says, “they become waste in the U.S.”

Back to Mexico they go, to be sold to the poor or thrown into dumps. But through the intervention of the artist, some of these ragtag T-shirts are destined to return once more to the U.S. (“Bara” has also made appearances in Dallas, in 2017, and in Glasgow, in 2019.) 

 Camil buys up second- and third-hand Tee’s at a cut-rate shop outside Mexico City. She overdyes the old shirts in the brilliant colors, then sews them together by color, reds with red, green with green, and so on, making giant tarps.

Once they arrive at their designated gallery, the tarps are hung so that the words are placed face down, so visitors can read them and ponder their meaning. To Camil, these texts are a kind of poetry. 

The wordless side of the cloth faces the ceiling. The artist also provides peep holes so fans can pop their heads through and marvel at the pure unsullied colors. 

COVID-19, not surprisingly, disrupted Camil’s usual practices. Instead of coming to Tucson to oversee the installation of the work, she was stuck in Mexico. It was up to the museum to put “Bara” together, under Camil’s instructions. 

“We communicated by phone and had a lot of conversations,” curator Copelin says. The piece is meant to be site-specific, and “it changes over time. The way the sails work they look different in every venue.”  

The pandemic also led to major changes in “Autonomous Space Rug.” 

When the work was in Scotland in 2019, Camil created a comfortable floor space by converting dozens of pairs of old jeans into comfortable pillows. Photos show visitors curled up together, side by side, lolling or resting or gazing up at the fabric canopy. Obviously, that iteration was not going to work in corona times. 

For the Tucson show, Camil asked for cushy carpeting to cover the entire floor of the Great Hall. She designed an elegant pattern of circles and lines that spool across the rug. Inspired by images from 18th-century French gardens to maps, Camil settled on lines that would serve as boundaries to remind guests to keep social distance.  

The outdoor laundry piece also has a COVID origin. Last fall, Marfa, an art institution in rural Texas, offered commissions to artists “to do something that they CAN do during the pandemic,” says Copelin, who also works with Marfa. Camil won one of the fellowships. Working from Mexico, Camil came up with a piece that “exploded what a flag could be,” Copelin says. Instead of national flags, discarded real-life clothes billowed in the open air; the piece started all over again in Tucson, with different clothes. 

Camil, who got a BFA at Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA at Slade School of Fine Art, London, has been getting attention internationally for “Bara, Bara, Bara” and other works that evoke the “Mexican urban landscape,” she writes in her bio.  

“I’ve been interested in her for a long time,” Copelin says. After learning of Camil’s exhibition at Dallas Contemporary museum, the curator got in touch with the artist and eventually invited her to show her work at MOCA. COVID permitting, “We’re hoping to get her here before the show ends.”


Pia Camil: Three Works  

Through Sept. 19
MOCA-Tucson, 265 S. Church Ave.
Noon to 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday
Free during pandemic


EXTRA: Starting in early May, you can participate in the installation in two ways. You can apply to MOCA for a mini-grant to use the carpet space temporarily for your own event—book club, dancing, etc. And you can join the Laundry piece outside by donating a piece of clothing, recording a story about that shirt or jeans garment and allowing it to fly high in the sky on the laundry line. See website for details.