Chun-Shan “Sandi” Yi creates fashion you won’t find on any catwalk.
The Chicago-based, Taiwanese artist makes wearable art — garments, accessories and footwear — that reflect the experiences of disabled bodies, including her own.
Yi’s family carries a genetic trait that can lead to being born with a variable number of fingers and toes. Yi has two fingers on each hand and two toes on each foot. (Her sister, who also had a 50% chance of expressing the trait, was born with the standard number of digits.)
Yi develops prosthetics, but not as correctional aids tasked with “normalizing” the body. Rather, Yi’s pieces tell stories about individual disabled experiences — from medical and surgical interventions, to daily interactions with other people — creating intimate and empathetic narratives around beauty standards and the tenuous concept of “normalcy.”
Photographs of Yi’s work are on display at East Window (4949 Broadway, Unit 102-B) — an outdoor viewing space — through Jan. 29.
Yi came to the U.S. as a high school exchange student in the early aughts and stayed to attend college at The School of the Art Institute at Chicago.
“That’s when I began making art about personal experiences,” she says over a recent phone call. “At the time, I didn’t make the connection that this was disability-experience art.”
But as she continued her studies — an MA in Chicago, an MFA at UC Berkeley, then back to Chicago where she’s working on her Ph.D. — she found other disabled artists who had proudly taken back the term “crip” as a way “to describe who we are as a distinctive artistic and activist-oriented community.”
Yi had always loved wearable art, but the world of fashion admittedly scared her. (“In college I had this idea that fashion people looked snobby,” she says with a laugh.)
“But when I was taking a costume design class [at Berkeley], I decided I’m going to make something called Crip Couture, the crip version of high fashion,” she says. “Instead of more commercial-based clothes, trying to play with the concept, making it disability-culture centered.
“I don’t want to make work that aims to please people then they want to buy it,” she says. “I wanted to integrate disability narratives, and having the art, the body adornment, reflect the wearer’s socio-cultural political experience, how talking about having a disability is a perspective we need to look at as a society.”
In a 2005 piece called “Animal Instinct,” Yi created high heels for herself, with a horn-like protrusion between the two toes of each of her feet, and a platform base that requires Yi to balance precariously on her toes. The horn reads as a chilling symbol for the way some people have reacted to Yi when they learn about her genetic difference — as though she were a monster.
In another work from the same year, Yi takes a softer approach. In “Can I Be Sexy for Once?,” synthetic stones are ergonomically shaped to fit between her toes, with gladiator style leather straps climbing up her legs. Juxtaposed against the more jagged “Animal Instinct,” the level of comfort of “Can I Be Sexy for Once?” suggests celebration… even joy.
But Yi says that’s a one-sided view.
“For myself, when I look at various pieces I did, there was never a moment where I felt I was going to only show this side, like joy,” she says. “I think there were a lot of feelings [during the making of that piece], just like how the disability experience is complex.There’s still pain that went into it.”
East Window founder and curator Todd Herman first experienced Yi’s art during a disability justice performance by Sins Invalid at UC Berkeley some years ago. As Yi led the audience in a breathing exercise, Herman says he was “stirred” by her poise and compassion. He went on to find the same energy imbued in her physical artworks.
“She just doesn’t engage in the shame that’s attempted to be imposed on people with significant differences from the rest of us typically bodied humans,” he says. “I think what I really admire about her work is that she does it with so much grace and so much humor and whimsy and elegance. She advances a very strong narrative without being pedantic.”
Yi says her art has offered her a connection to “the larger collective experience.”
“I feel like when we talk about disability experience, it’s not just about disability; it’s about our differences, whether that’s height or weight or race. It’s about intersectionality,” she says. “Making art about my experience, I see how I’m not just speaking for myself. My intention is to make art and make connections, because other people who have similar experiences need to see identifications in other people. I think that’s what I have discovered from the disability art movement: I realized I had been looking for role models.”