Lesson: Looking Closer: The Artwork of Shinique Smith

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Global Studies, Social Studies, Literary Arts, and Studio Arts
  • "Their First Bundle," 2004."Their First Bundle," 2004.
  • "Bale Variant Number 0011," 2005."Bale Variant Number 0011," 2005.


Written by Marc Mayer and Cathleen Lewis, Manager of High School Programs.

This lesson investigates the artwork of Shinique Smith. As an artist, Smith utilizes used clothing as an important material in her art practice. Many of her works make strong connections to the second-hand clothing market that originates in the United States or Europe. Clothing is “donated,” sorted by grades of quality, packed in bales, sold by the ton, and shipped to Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Though formed together in large bales, each individual article has its own life and biography. Students will also listen to a song, Are My Hands Clean, by Sweet Honey in the Rock, a Grammy award-winning African-American female a cappella ensemble with deep musical roots in the sacred music of the Black church – spirituals, hymns, gospel – as well as jazz and blues. This lesson begs the question where does our clothing come from, and where does it end up? Through the artwork and music, this lesson asks students to look, listen and then consider, as consumers and citizens, in which systems of power and exploitation do they participate?


• Student will cultivate an awareness of global trade
• Students will develop a critical lens to view and analyze how global trade can impact economies and politics in other countries
• Students will understand, as consumers, they too are part of these economic and political systems


Global Trade refers to the exchange of goods and services across international boundaries or territories. Without international trade, nations would be limited to the goods ands services produced within their own borders. Global trade has both positive and negative factors that impact international relations.
Third World is a term used to categorize countries that are labeled as developing nations according to economic, political, and social factors. Many criticize the use of this term because it is viewed as colonial and represents an ideology rather than reality of nations in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
Refugee is a person who leaves his or her home because of a well grounded fear of being prosecuted because of race, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, sexuality, and other factors.


World Map
Pins or Post Its
Shinique Smith’s images in the Digital Archives

Lesson Strategy

Show Shinique Smith’s images.

Shinique Smith
Their First Bundle, 2004
Fabric, clothing, ribbon
Diameter 18 in

Bale Variant Number 0011, 2005
Clothing, accessories, twine, and wood
72 × 72 × 28 in

• Looking closely, what objects or materials do you recognize in this artwork?
• Can you read the labels of the clothing?
• What other objects, in addition to clothing, do you recognize?
• Why do you think the artist includes them?
• What adjectives would you use to describe the materials in this work?
• What is its texture?
• Are their any items in this sculpture that remind you of your clothing? What pieces or articles?
• Where do you think this clothing comes from?
• How would you describe the size and shape of this sculpture?
• How is this artwork kept together?
• This work by Shinique Smith is titled Bale Variant No. 0011. Does the title make you think differently about the artwork? What ideas are conjured by the word bale?
• Do you think this bale is being transported? Where do you think it is going?

Smith’s bundled sculptures of clothing, fabric, accessories and household items are inspired by the use and disposal of materials that line streets in machine compacted bundles; the surplus value of used clothing being exported to Third World countries in 1,000-pound bales and remark on recent world events which have displaced people and caused them to lose their belongings.

• What current events have displaced people and caused them to lose their belongings?
• Define the word refugee. How has this word been used in recent events?
• How might this artwork speak to trade and humanitarian efforts across the world?

Read the quote and discuss with students.

Taking Stands. It is an amazing time to be an artist and try to be a participant and commentator in the world. Sometimes there is so much happening on any given day you wonder how you can absorb everything and not shut down. Having a Sweet Honey concert means there is another opportunity to be clear about the things we care about in the world. One of the most important of those opportunities is that we celebrate our lives by taking a stand. If there is a major crisis in the country, a Sweet Honey concert of Sweet Honey music is a way to begin to affirm where one stands on the issue. Many people tell us they come to a concert to work things out, to get energy. – Bernice Johnson Reagon, Founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Play the CD Sweet Honey and the Rock, Live at Carnegie Hall, Are My Hands Clean. You may consider finding the lyrics and passing them out as students listen.

In this song Sweet Honey has created a narrative which takes us on a journey of third world exploitation through the cotton fields of El Salvador (Central America), Venezuela, the Caribbean, Trinidad, and Haiti, to factory workers in USA, where the raw materials made into cotton and polyester by the large mills and chemical companies, and then into garments freshly packaged for U.S. consumption.

Start with a world map. As the song begins, place stick pins along the route, have students jot down notes as the story unfolds, then ask students to write a five minute critical response to what they heard and experienced. Ask them to hand in their critical responses, (or keep them until the end) and then have a discussion.

• Where does the story begin?
• How much is the worker paid?
• What are the conditions of labor?

Map the journey through the Panama Canal, to the USA Mills
• What happens to the cotton there? Which states are involved?
• How does the raw materials interact with the large oil companies?
• Where does the cotton/polyester go from there?
• Where are the blood-soaked fields?
• How did they become blood-soaked?
• Where do the piece workers sew the garments?
• For which department store?
• Before it arrives on the shelf what happens to the blouse? How is it packaged?
• What does the plastic imply? Who finally purchased the garment?
• For how much of a discount?
• What does the song mean when they sing “I wear garments from all over the world?”
• How is the U.S. consumer complicit in this act of exploitation?

Ask students where they buy their clothing, food, accessories, or electronics. Have each student pick an item or good they own. research from where it came, and how it reached its destination. Students can map out the route these items may have traveled.


Have students document all the products they use, put on their body, eat, or consume for one whole day from when they wake up to when they go to bed. Discuss the results with your students.

Extending the Lesson

Utilize the NPR feature The World in a T-Shirt and excerpts of the book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade by Petra Rivoli to design a suite of lessons about global trade and economics.

Additional Resources

NPR: The World in a T-Shirt

Petra Rivoli, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2005.

Transcript of an IMF Book Forum, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade. Wednesday, October 19, 2005. International Monetary Fund Washington, D.C.

Sweet Honey in the Rock, Live at Carnegie Hall, 1992.

Bill Bigelow and Bob Peterson, Eds. Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World. Milawakee: Rethinking Schools. 2002

UMS Teacher Resource Guide

Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, and Pat Griffin Eds. Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice. New York: Routledge, 1997.