Kathy Vargas’s new exhibition at Artpace, “Shopping for Bargains/My Mother Taught Me to Shop” is a marvelous*striking* visual treat **striking arrangement of images that Artpace “reveals the ever-growing cost consumer culture has placed on its workers and how this practice often rewards unethical capitalistic tendencies, all in the name of fashion. Vargas “sheds light on the underpaid workers in fast fashion sweatshops and factories Vargas demonstrates that it is not only third-world countries that exploit garment workers, but also countries like economically powerful countries such as China and India. Americans tend 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 are not all good.
Following her high school graduation, Kathy Vargas enrolled in art classes at the Southwest Schools of Arts and Crafts in San Antonio. Initially, she studied painting, but self-doubts about her painting skills led her to study photography. For her first assignment, Vargas took photos with an Instamatic camera, an inexpensive popular with teenagers and parents who simply wanted a memory of a special event. Her professor, the famed rock and roll photographer, Tom Wright, recognized Vargas’s passion for learning and loaned her a Leika camera.
Vargas’s decision to study under Wright was the first phase of an artistic transformative period. Wright offered excellent critiques of all the works of his students. While teaching photography during the seventies, Wright continued to travel with numerous famous rock and roll bands, notably with the Who, Elvis Costello, the T-Birds, Rod Stewart, The Eagles, and the Rolling Stones. She credits her photography professor, Tom Wright, with instilling her understanding of the many complex techniques of making creative photos.
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 Safos 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. ***asked Vargas to join Con/Safos…
Vargas 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. Their 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.”
American Universities sell millions of dollars of products such as caps, shirts, and jackets with their logo.
A major success of the WRC has been to work with universities [146 affiliates in the United States] in the enforcement of binding labor standards they have adopted to protect workers producing apparel and other goods bearing university logos. Vargas’s photography focuses on the many fashion products sold in America that were***Everyday Americans spend millions of dollars on clothing and fashion products made in China, India, and Latin America. Workers producing these products often earn as little as five dollars a day. The Gitnux news platform notes that 85 percent of sweatshop workers are females 15-25. The typical garment industry worker in Mumbai [West coast of India] earns merely $0.13 per hour. Child labor, including 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, for example, are a consequence of market competition. Vargas placed a large map on the Artpace wall to demonstrate where American retail stores were going to buy their fashion good. China and India led the world in the number of textile factories
Nearly all the US stores with 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 garments, the U.S. has closed textile factories in Los Angeles and New York and other communities with high Latino populations. Job losses in these communities have led to homelessness in many cases.
Copyright 2023 by Ricardo Romo.