Sina Basila: Refashioned Garbage / by Heather Topcik

Everyone knows about the 3 R’s — even the most willfully anti-environmentalist trash tosser knows the Holy Trinity of reduce, reuse, recycle. But artist Sina Basila is making a creative case for adding a fourth R, for refashion.

A photographer and documentary filmmaker whose multifaceted work addresses issues of social and environmental justice, Sina has been exploring the artistic possibilities of upcycling. Whereas recycling involves transforming waste into objects and materials of lesser value, upcycling is about elevating the value of the things we discard by giving them a new, higher purpose. In Refashioned Garbage, her current exhibition on view at the Society for Domestic Museology, Sina turns the detritus of contemporary consumer culture into haute couture.

I first became acquainted with Sina's work through social media in early 2016. She had just moved back to the U.S. after living in Berlin for six years, and her sister Nyasa, who babysat for our kids when they were toddlers, reached out to ask if I knew anyone in need of a nanny. She included a short bio of Sina and a link to her website. I was intrigued by the documentary photography I saw on the website, so I followed Sina on Instagram and soon became further intrigued by the self-portraits that began showing up in my feed.

The photos were dramatic and gestural, with the exaggerated seriousness of a magazine fashion spread but with a twist: all of the garments modeled by Sina were composed of things we typically throw away — cardboard, plastic packaging, tinsel, and other fabricated materials that had been transformed beyond recognition. The more I followed her work, the more eager I was to showcase this project and how it challenges us to consider our habits of consumption.

Consumption and waste are central themes in Sina’s work. She uses only found objects and discarded materials to create her garments — plastic bags, umbrellas, fruit and vegetable netting, old tinsel, and cardboard are among the staples. Through weaving, knotting, wrapping, and heat-treating, she transforms these castoff materials into wearable art.

For Refashioned Garbage, Sina hung three of her portraits (set, appropriately, in cardboard frames) and displayed a recently finished garment — a gorgeously slinky dress of beige recycled cardboard woven with magenta tinsel — on the dress form I keep around for just such an occasion.

The outfits themselves are ephemeral, designed to be documented in her self-portraits — the cardboard/tinsel dress wouldn't make it very far on an animate body. But that's not the point. While Sina's work gestures at the efforts of artists and designers determined to make the fashion industry more sustainable, the garments and images are also meant to call attention to the material components themselves. Is an umbrella still an umbrella once the fabric is stripped from its aluminum skeleton and made into a cape? What are umbrellas made of anyway? Nylon? Where does it come from?

Once Sina has created a garment — after an often painstakingly slow process of collecting and sanitizing bits and pieces of garbage — she documents each one with a self-portrait.  Beyond the novelty of the materials she is wearing, the images themselves are compelling, with dramatic, dance-like gestures and expressions. Garments like these demand theatrics — after all, if you’re going to wear a diaphanous dress made entirely of plastic bags, a grand gesture is almost required. Unlike high-fashion photography, however, in which a model interacts with a photographer, here Sina plays both roles, using the self-timer on her camera. The photo experience is a solitary one, and the expressions captured are private and unselfconscious.

Sina is expanding the project to include other people wearing her designs, and this idea was the inspiration for our opening event.  Alongside the installation, she gave a slideshow on her process and inspiration — a cardboard hat and umbrella cape photo was inspired by Beyoncé’s “Formation” video. And she also brought along a few accessories and sample materials for people to experiment with while she took pictures.

Inspired by the theme of upcycling and zero-waste, the menu for the opening featured hors d’oeuvres portions of entrees traditional made with leftovers: chilaquile bites made from old tortillas and leftover black beans, picadillo meatballs using leftover rice. Clairelicious brought beautiful bread puddings and mini-donuts made for the express purpose of using up leftover sprinkles. Sina’s mother, Hanna, provided fitting centerpieces for the table: tin-can vases filled with flowers from her home garden in upstate New York.  After presentation and discussion, guests jumped at the chance to model the sample items for Sina’s camera, like a hip art-world version of Bat Mitzvah photo booth. Many were chatting about what they might be able to do with their own discarded material. As it happens, Sina runs workshops teaching techniques for transforming household waste and found objects into wearable art.  While the immediate goal of the workshops is to inspire creativity, the ultimate goal is to inspire people to reconsider — and reduce — the things we use and throw away.

Once you’ve created a fascinator out of fruit netting, will you look at that bag of clementines in a new way the next time you’re in the produce aisle? Will you think again about where your clothing comes from? Maybe make more of an effort to consume less? If Sina has it her way, you will — and you’ll look fabulous.