Guest curator Jennifer Kim Sohn looks for a way to make the unfathomable number of refugees around our world more tangible by marking a displaced person with panels of hand-sewn stitches—25 million and counting. | Mingei International Museum

"I hope our community project can help people see refugees as our neighbors and fellow humans rather than a threat to our limited resources."

In the Museum’s exhibition, 25 Million Stitches: One Stitch, One Refugee, Sacramento-based, Korean-American fiber artist Jennifer Kim Sohn, raises awareness of the international refugee crisis by marking the number of displaced people via stitches on embroidered panels. In the show, over 2,000 panels are combined vertically to create 408 floor-to-ceiling flags. These flags will be suspended from the ceiling, allowing visitors to walk through and around the installation, being both an immersive and emotional experience.

Photo of Jennifer Kim Sohn by Aniko Kiezel

Where did you get the idea for this project?

In 2013, The New York Times reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, and I began following the heartbreaking stories of children being put on boats by parents, knowing they wouldn’t be able to go with their children. That moment touched me profoundly, and I began researching more about refugees around the world. I was shocked to find a 2019 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stating there were over 25 million refugees worldwide, most of whom were climate refugees. 25 million is such an astronomical number it’s hard to grasp an understanding of how many people that truly is, but I thought art could help. I had seen art visually represent data before, and it made a strong impression on me. So, I knew if I could better visualize the number 25 million, it could have the potential to be impactful.

How did it turn into a community project?

At first, I tried it on my own using a sewing machine, but I broke it in three and a half days and all I had to show for it was 16 inches by 40 feet. That’s when I realized this project was bigger than I could handle, and I thought, let me reach out to my neighborhood and art groups for support.

I also started sharing about the project on social media, but it didn’t take off right away. Even the stitchers were reluctant because they knew how long it takes to stitch a 64-inch panel. But I kept getting enthusiastic responses, and for every ten panels we shipped out, I would get about one back.

After continually sharing about the project and its progress on social media, the project really began to build momentum! And it was also around this time the COVID-19 pandemic began, and people were eager to do something that connected them with others while being alone. We ended up collecting 23 million in two months!

Why did you use embroidered panels for this project?

This project has evolved so much since the beginning! Initially, the idea was for the finished project to become one huge collection of running stitches, but as the project evolved and the community became a vital part of the process, unique designs, and messages emerged changing the initial vision. It’s mainly because of the community of over 2,300 stitchers, that this final art project is what it is today.

I decided to use stitching because I knew – although I didn't know how huge 25 million stitches were at the time – that it would be a large installation and needed to travel easily. Therefore, the material had to be something light like fabric or paper, and muslin is more durable and travels better than paper.

It was also important to me that we use embroidery because sewing is a craft often used to mend broken things. Before we started buying a new item of clothing, stitching a hole in your socks or pocket was something everybody did.

What do you hope people take away from this?

I hope our community project can help people see refugees as our neighbors and fellow humans rather than a threat to our limited resources. Already, this project has hit the hearts and minds of many people. I’ve had people come and hug me with tearful eyes after viewing the exhibition, which let me know it’s a very moving and powerful show.

Curious about how they counted 25 million stitches?

Watch this short clip from a 25 Million Stitches project volunteer.

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