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Quilts and arpilleras

By Roberta Bacic (September 2009

This is the third month INNATE looks into a piece that relates arts to conflict and peace.

Back in 2007 I started collecting and exhibiting quilts and arpilleras (small Latin American textiles made on burlap) so as to depict what women were experiencing in their lives through the violent conflicts that affect their lives. Since February 2008 they have been permanently on exhibition in different places of Northern Ireland and beyond.

The core argument to bring them out to the public domain is well stated in a quote I found in Weavings of War published in 2005 by Michigan State University. Ariel Zeitlin Cooke says:

“In telling their stories of survival, artists make use of whatever styles, techniques and genres are most familiar, most integral to their experience and identity. Each culture has its own traditional forms of expression which artists employ to express their ideas, feelings, and stories. When existing modes of expression seem inadequate or inappropriate to the task of communication, artists adapt and change them. Sometimes they invent new forms. The disastrous dislocation and disruption of war particularly necessitate new form of expressions. War may transform not only the storyteller but also an entire culture’s way of telling stories”.

It seems pertinent at this stage to share with our INNATE readers and beyond, a piece I wrote for the UNDP Magazine (United Nations Development Programme, Colombia) and which appeared in their special number 42, December 2008/January 2009.

Arpilleras That Cry Out, Denounce, Sing And Challenge

In Chile, these manual textile crafts were used to represent acts of repression, violence and trauma; and to express their effect on the political groups, indigenous and grassroots communities and minorities targeted during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

"People restore the truth to wash wounds,

to clean the eyes of those who hid it,

and the ignorance of those who did not want to see"

(Carlos Martin Beristain)

Arpilleras, literally “burlaps”, originated in the ancient folk textile traditions of the Isla Negra region of Chile. Arpilleras are quilted patchworks, appliquéd and embroidered to depict scenes from the lives of the women who made them. Scraps of cloth create and recreate images that are stitched onto a base fabric then mounted on burlap, the rough fabric used for bagging potatoes. This is where the name comes from.

Language becomes elusive, shy and helpless when trying to describe what the arpilleras are; what they express and transmit. It is not possible to refer to them only by looking at the images. Even if deprived of feeling their texture, the context which gave them life and the artists who made them are clearly part of a specific historic social space.

The limitations of words force us to seek a different, more creative way of approaching arpilleras if we hope to engage adequately with the emotions they express and evoke. The Chilean folklorist Violeta Parra said, "Arpilleras are like painted songs". When she was sick in bed in Santiago in the 1960s, she made many innovative arpilleras. Using traditional methods, embroidering with wool and thread on the patches of cloth, with a sense of total freedom she recreated scenes of everyday life, of historical and popular landscapes. The Artisan Centre of the Dominicans in Santiago, mounted an exhibition of these works in March–April 2004: Violeta Parra, Oils and Arpilleras.

 

On many occasions the craftswomen artists use dolls or other objects to bring us closer to the emotional and material life their pictures represent, giving realistic, three-dimensional life to their creations.

 

Beyond Chile, the use of traditional textile crafts to depict acts of repression, violence and trauma is growing. They are created particularly from the repression experienced by indigenous groups, local grassroots communities and minorities, whether during civil wars, other armed conflicts or periods of transition.

Handmade cloth artworks such as these convey experiences that are difficult or impossible to communicate in words and cross the barriers of language and culture to communicate with other people starkly and directly. To do this, women’s textile works are woven, sewn, embroidered or created from a combination of these different techniques. Women in countries of Central and Southeast Asia, like Thailand, Laos, Burma and Vietnam; in South Africa, in Afghanistan, and the United States, to name a few, are creating works similar to the Chilean arpilleras.

Their Emergence In Latin America

In Latin America, Chile was the pioneer in the use of arpilleras to denounce political-social crimes. Among the arpilleras of this country are those that originally came from the hands of courageous women of the Association of Relatives of the Detained Disappeared. Under the sponsorship of the Vicariate of Solidarity of the Catholic Church in Chile, they could act, resist, confront, denounce, rebel and save from oblivion their loved ones who had been disappeared, executed, tortured, exiled, impoverished and humiliated under the cruel and ruthless military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990.

These women developed a unique identity in the history of the country, expressing through textiles the denunciation of what they were being forced to live. Theirs was a form of political resistance which embraced non-violence despite the horrors they faced; a therapy to handle their sorrows; participation in their society in a role different to the one usually designated and a way to obtain some resources for survival.

Marjorie Agosín, in her book published this year entitled Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love, the Arpillera Movement in Chile, explains in what context they emerged: "The arpilleras were born into a desolate and muffled period in Chilean culture, when citizens spoke in hushed voices, writing was censored, and political parties vanished. Yet the arpilleras flourished in the midst of a silent nation, and from the inner patios of churches and poor neighbourhoods, stories made of cloth and yarn narrated what was forbidden."

Using their natural skills of sewing, knitting, embroidery and weaving, these women share feelings and experiences with other Chileans and with other cultures. This is how they remember; this is how they show what happened to them, as individuals, as members of a community and as citizens of their country. Arpilleras keep memory alive.

"Through scraps torn from remnants of clothing and discarded objects unvalued by the new consumerism, these women managed to express forbidden scenes: torture, clandestine prisons and hunger in the township. For the arpilleristas, the political events of the country and their daily lives became inseparable. Through their art, they represented their world: empty homes and children looking for their parents. However, in spite of the portrayal of a world of horrors, the arpillera is bright, cheerful, and speaks of hope and the empowerment that rises from the solidarity of collective labour,” says Agosín.

Beyond their skill as works of art, the process of creating these vignettes of their painful experiences, of disseminating them beyond their specific, everyday world, and above all their contribution to revealing the truth; the making of these textiles helped the arpilleristas and their followers to improve their self-esteem, strengthened them and gave them the energy needed to make claims for reparation and justice.

Let us look at a few individual arpilleras, the scenes, pictures, figures, memorabilia and texts that reveal what women want to say

This is the general introduction of the article. If you – as a reader – want to access the complete article with its corresponding arpilleras pictures, I invite you to go to the web site where it resides.

http://indh.pnud.org.co/index_.plx?f=1205205968&lang=EN (the whole magazine)

http://indh.pnud.org.co/files/boletin_hechos/Arpilleras.pdf (the article)

For more information on quilts and arpilleras and also on past, present and future exhibitions, visit the archive at www.cain.ulst.ac.uk/quilts

Copyright INNATE 2016