Kathy Vargas’s new exhibition at Artpace, “Shopping for Bargains/My Mother Taught Me to Shop,” is a marvelous visual treat. It is also a social justice statement about the ever-present American pursuit of fashion products that sustain the culture of consumerism and give rise to sweatshops around the world.
Twenty-six years ago, Artpace selected Vargas for their Artist-in-Residence program. Since her Artpace Residency, her career has blossomed. She has had solo exhibits in Rome, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires. Her photography is in several major museums including the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, the Toledo Art Museum, and the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago.
Kathy Vargas first became interested in photography after graduating from high school. At the time, she was giving earnest thought to becoming a painter. With an intent to learn about visual arts, Vargas enrolled at the Southwest Schools of Arts and Crafts in San Antonio. Initially, she studied painting, but self-doubts about her drawing skills led her to study photography.
The Southwest School had many talented arts and crafts teachers, but none were as well known as Tom Wright who taught photography. While teaching photography during the seventies, Wright continued to travel with numerous famous rock and roll bands, notably The Who, Elvis Costello, the T-Birds, Rod Stewart, The Eagles, and the Rolling Stones.
Vargas’s decision to study with Wright was the first phase of an artistic transformative period. Wright [known as the rock and roll photographer] offered excellent critiques of all his students’ works. Vargas learned from her famous professor that photography requires discipline and patience but also a profound understanding of the many complex techniques for making creative photos.
For her first assignment, Vargas took photos with an Instamatic camera, an inexpensive gadget popular with teenagers and parents who simply wanted a memory of a special event. Professor Wright recognized Vargas’s passion for learning and loaned her a Leika camera.
Her second major transformative period came when she enrolled at San Antonio College where she studied under art professor Mel Casas. Casas, one of the founding members of the Con Safo art group, forerunners of the Chicano Art Movement, taught design which contributed to Vargas’s greater application of art as a means of communicating ideas. Most importantly, Casas, who had a strong commitment to Chicano advancement in the arts, made sure that his students learned about social justice issues.
Vargas completed Bachelor of Arts and Master of Fine Arts degrees at UTSA and initially worked as a part-time journalist for the San Antonio Light. In her time at the Light, Vargas is proud to have written about Chicano artist Adan Hernandez in the early 1980s before he gained national attention. In 1985, she joined the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio as the Visual Arts Program Director working with Pedro Rodriguez, literary prodigy Sandra Cisneros, and conjunto guru Juan Tejeda.
At the same time, she continued to develop her talents in photography and creativity. She has an impressive resume of national and international exhibits and publications. In 2000, Vargas joined the Art/Photography Department at the University of the Incarnate Word where she currently holds a Full Professor position.
Vargas’s new exhibit at Artpace, “Shopping for Bargains/My Mother Taught Me to Shop,” is about fashion, culture, and consumerism. Vargas grew up sewing her damaged clothes and listening to her mother’s advice on how to resist spending too much money on fashion. The current generation of Americans tends to give little thought about where their fashions come from. What Vargas suggests is that shopping for fashion bargains has its consequences, and the ramifications of these purchases can result in the exploitation of workers and damage the environment.
When it comes to photography, Vargas is a global thinker. For the Artpace exhibit, she posted a statement outlining the efforts of the Worker Rights Consortium [WRC], an independent labor rights monitoring organization that investigates working conditions in factories around the globe. The organization’s stated purpose is to “document and combat sweatshop conditions; identify and expose the practices of global brands and retailers that perpetuate labor rights abuses; and protect the rights of workers who make apparel and other products.” She also included large images of maps in the exhibit showing the major countries that allow sweatshops to run unregulated.
The WRC’s greatest impact has been on American Universities. The major U.S. universities sell millions of dollars of products such as caps, shirts, and jackets embossed with their logos. WRC has successfully worked with 146 university affiliates in the United States in the enforcement of binding labor standards the organization adopted to protect workers producing apparel and other goods bearing university logos.
Vargas’s photography focuses on the many fashion products sold in America throughout the seasons. Americans spend millions of dollars daily on clothing and fashion products, with many items made in China, India, and Latin America. Workers producing these products often earn as little as five dollars a day or less. The Gitnux global news platform notes that 85 percent of sweatshop workers are females ages 15-25. The typical garment industry worker in Mumbai [West coast of India] earns merely $0.13 per hour. Child labor, including children working in sweatshops, involves 168 million children globally [Gitnux News].
The decisions of many American clothing and fashion industries to contract with sweatshops in China and India as well as in other locations are a consequence of market competition. Vargas’s Artpace photography exhibit demonstrates where American retail stores buy their fashion goods. China and India led the world in the number of textile factories she identified.
Nearly all the United States stores offering inexpensive jeans and shirts go abroad for their merchandise. Large department stores tend to buy from the lowest bidder. Vargas explained that as a result of importing millions of these low-cost garments, the U.S. has closed textile factories in Los Angeles, New York, San Antonio, and other communities with high Latino populations. Job losses in these communities have led to homelessness in many cases.
High fashion consumption has resulted in major losses in the American garment industry as retail merchants now buy the majority of their clothing goods from poor nations that pay less than living wages to their workers.
The Artpace exhibit reveals Vargas’s concern about the ever-growing damage consumer culture has caused to its workers and how this practice often rewards unethical capitalistic tendencies, all in the name of fashion. Artpace notes that Vargas’s images “shed light on the underpaid workers in fast fashion sweatshops and factories from across the world.”
In the last decade, sharp political differences between the United States and China have caused many major brand companies to move their garment industries to neighboring countries of Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, and Pakistan. Organizations such as the WRC will face challenges in lessening labor abuses and wages in these countries, but social justice and equality are not easily gained. Greater media exposure and information on this topic are essential. Kathy Vargas’s photographic talents and the story she tells contribute to that effort.