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Jane Castillo’s Bloodlines intertwine among the trees of Parque de Los Pobladores.

Entering downtown San Jose from the south either on 1st Street or Market, you can’t miss them. Long strips of bright red fabric zig zag between and among the tree branches some 7 to 9 feet off the ground in Parque de Los Pobladores. No, it’s not a crime scene. It’s an installation—Bloodlines—conceptualized by Columbian artist Jane Castillo, an artist-in-residence at MACLA, who invited community members to embroider their family names on the fabric. Walk beneath the fabric canopy and you can read the names—evidence of people wanting to belong, wanting to be represented as part of the “fabric” of our lives here in San Jose.

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Brown Sugar reflects the roots of artist Jane Castillo, at MACLA.

An installation titled Brown Sugar by Castillo also was featured in Conceptual Landscapes: recent work by Jane Castillo and Mariana Garibay, an exhibit that ran from January 20 to March 13, 2010 at MACLA. Castillo stacked 25-pound burlap bags of sugar to create towering, solid yet sensuous, floor-to-ceiling sculptures intended to suggest the cane fields where her Philipina, African and Spanish ancestors once worked—sometimes willingly, but also unwillingly as slaves. Upon close examination, each sugar bag’s packaging label featured a pretty and smiling self-portrait of the artist framed by her “brand”—CastilloРand the descriptors “Golden Brown” and “Pure Cane Sugar.” Metaphorically seizing control of the historically exploitative sugar industry’s means of production, the artist playfully and poignantly represented herself as the symbol of this new “brand” which transformed a consumer product—a bag of sugar—into a powerful monument to the laborers who produce such products, as well as to daily acts of nurturance we associate with food and cooking.

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Castillo’s multiple self portraits

.In a digital photo collage accompanying the installation, Castillo represented multiples of her own body standing in a variety of poses and clothed in nothing but one of the cane sugar burlap bags with the intent of ‚Äúhonoring the silent role of women in history and trade.‚Äù Here, the artist seemed to wade into unfamiliar territory. In a North American context, ‚Äúbrown sugar‚Äù is slang both for heroin and a sexy but ‚Äúwifey‚Äù African-American woman of medium brown to honey-colored skin. So the photo in which the artist–whose skin color happens to read very ‚Äúwhite‚Äù–represents herself as a chorus line of scantily clad ‚Äúbrown sugar‚Äù babes raises questions about women trafficking sexualized images of women and about the politics of racial identity that I experienced as a distraction from the emotional impact of the sculptural work.

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Diem Chau explores our tentative connections to our mates by a single red thread, in By a Thread at the San Jose ICA.

Curiously enough, the red fabric in Bloodlines resonates strongly with a works by Diem Chau and Beili Liu in By A Thread, an exhibit of artwork by emerging and mid-career Bay Area artists on view at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art through May 15, 2010. Also concerned with people wanting and trying to connect, Chau uses white ceramic bowls and plates as the “ground” of her work, over which she embroiders portraits of people connected by a red thread or holding a dangling red thread in a gesture of offering. Liu explores a Chinese legend about the invisible red thread we are all born with and that connects us to our soul mate. To materialize this legend, the artist has painstakingly used red thread and pins to suggest two, life-sized figures whose fates are tenuously linked.

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Beili Liu connects Soul Mates by red threads in By a Thread.

By A Thread also includes work by Jody Alexander, Susan Taber Avila, Lauren DiCioccio, Robin Hill, Nina Katchadourian, Lisa Kokin, Katie Lewis, Emil Lukas, Victoria May, Ali Naschke-Messing, Lisa Solomon, Hadi Tabatabai, Nicola Vruwink, and Allison Watkins. The exhibit is a window onto the ways that contemporary artists are turning to fiber media and fiber art-making techniques to evoke not only visual—but provocative, multivalent, and haptic experiences.

Jane Pryzbyz, as the Director of the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles, also in the Sofa District, celebrates the popularity of fibers as a medium for contemporary expressions.

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