The concrete pillars gave way and a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed to the ground, crushing and killing more than 1,100 people and injuring about 2,500 more, mostly young women making clothes for major retailers in the West.
As news of what Time magazine called the worst industrial accident in the history of the garment industry flashed across television screens around the world in late April, some were reminded of work of art by former Milwaukee artist Terese Agnew.
In an effort to keep the conversation about labor practices abroad going, Agnew’s large-scale quilt “Portrait of a Textile Worker” will be taken out of storage at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design and loaned to the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, where it will go on view Saturday.
The 2003 artwork, which brings to life he image of a beautiful young girl at her sewing machine in Bangladesh, is crafted from about 30,000 clothing labels. Up close the brand names are visible –Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Liz Claiborne. Step back, though, and these well-known names recede and dissolve together and the image of the otherwise nameless girl surfaces.
The hope, Agnew always said, was that viewers would make a tangible connection between the things that they buy and the people who make them, between some brand names and the people who work in dangerous and sometimes abusive conditions.
The portrait is based on a photograph of the girl in a Bangladesh factory surreptitiously taken by the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights’ (formerly National Labor Committee) Charles Kernaghan.
Agnew now lives in La Farge, Wis. The Museum of Arts and Design New York is currently being run by David Gordon, the former director and CEO of the Milwaukee Art Museum.
“MOWA is a nimble organization and we’re able to respond quickly to fast-paced changes in our political and social environment,” said Laurie Winters, director at the Museum of Wisconsin Art and former director of exhibitions at MAM. “Our goal as a museum is not only to reflect the environment in which we live, but to take part in the larger conversation. That’s what artists do and museums need to do the same.”
The Museum of Wisconsin Art is located at 205 Veterans Ave. West Bend. The quilt will remain on view through Jan. 17.