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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Sandie Yi talks disability and art

Sandie Yi spoke about exploring disability. Photo by Jun Taek Lee
Sandie Yi spoke about exploring disability. Photo by Jun Taek Lee

Last Monday, artist Sandie Yi presented “Crip Couture,” a talk about how disability informs her work. The event, which took place in Main Lounge, involved Yi showing and discussing photographs of her body adornment pieces. Yi has studied art therapy and is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in disability studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Yi asked attendees to congregate close to the front of the room and continuously engaged with the audience, asking attendees to share what came to mind when they thought about interactions between art and the body.

“My work focuses the relationship between body, art and memories,” Yi said. “[This approach] came very naturally. At first, I wasn’t thinking about disability at all. The term didn’t exist until much later.”

Through her art, Yi seeks to reclaim agency by defining how others perceive her disability. Several of Yi’s works were intricate pieces of jewelry and wearable art for her hands and feet. Yi has two digits on her hands and feet, and for her, these pieces strive to change the way other people interact with her unconventional body structure, as well as serving as a protective purpose for herself. One of her pieces, a finger basket made of felt, has a single fishbone poking from it.

“I needed some sort of mechanism to protect myself. The gesture for me to display my hand is very much about getting attention, but I wanted to alter the meaning of this gesture,” Yi said.

Yi spoke about traumatic experiences in department stores when people would literally recoil from her once they realized her disability. She talked about how the burden of living with a disability encompasses not only the physical handicap, but the task of constantly needing to explain and defend oneself against others’ reactions.

“It was always my responsibility to explain my disability. It’s always about making sure that other people are okay. I have to take care of people who are so shocked by me. I have to suck in their fear and uncomfortable feelings to make sure that they are okay,” she said.

In addition to her wearable art pieces, Yi showed a series of photographs in which she recreated scenes from doctor’s visits when medical professionals often gave unsolicited advice to use prosthetic limbs in order for her to appear more “normal.” This project gave Yi the chance to revisit those experiences. In that moment, she had not stood up for herself against the medicalization of her body.

The audience was very receptive to Yi and asked several questions about her artistic process and experience in the movement for disability rights.

“I think what Sandie said about finding her ‘crip sisters’ who just got it, who saw her, was really powerful and important. It was something that I, as someone who has experienced something similar with regards to mental illness, really related to,” wrote Maddie O’Meara ’17 in an email to The S&B.

The artist concluded with pieces that she had made for others with disabilities, including an intricately embroidered cast for another woman’s arms.

“Meeting people with disabilities, I often find that there is a connection,” Yi said. “It’s like you’re being seen and you don’t have to explain much. When I hear their experiences, I see a piece of me also.”

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