TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Friday, September 5, 2008

Arpilleras: Market Scenes and Political Protest

Market Scene arpillera from Earthlink Handcrafts, $45
from the artisans from CIAP Peru
This beautifully crafted Arpillera is made by a group of women
from the Kuyanakuy Artisans Assoc.
They live in the marginalised areas of Lima
This scene depicts their earlier village life
before they became refugees from the civil war of the 1980s.

I spent my junior year of college in South America; one semester in an Urban Studies program based in Bogota, Colombia and the second at the Lutheran seminary in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Bogota has a fascinating museum that showcases traditional crafts from the area, Museo de Artes y Tradiciones Populares. Housed in a former monastery, Colombia's rich heritage of weaving, ceramic art, basketry and woolen products are displayed with honor.

I saw my first arpilleras in this museum, 3-d appliqued tapestries of village life. The museum had a couple of enormous pieces, covering a whole wall with people engaged in every kind of activity, all carefully stuffed, embroidered and brightly clothed. The scenes evoked happiness, life, and productivity. That was over twenty years ago and since then, the technique has spread. I don't know which country started it, but arpilleras are also found in Peru, Ecuador and Chile and have become increasingly more diverse in their themes. Lucuma Designs, a Fair Trade Organization, carries a huge selection of beautifully crafted arpilleras, from traditional designs to wild dinosaurs and other themes.
Dinosaurs, $167

A couple of years after graduating from college, I worked for Chicago Uptown Ministry, a Lutheran project that provides direct service to low income people in one of Chicago's most populated and ethnically diverse neighborhoods. One of my roles there was to provide different craft activities to the people we serviced. I introduced the arpilleras to a group of women and taught them how to make the 3-d images. Then, I asked them to each pick a window from their apartments and try to translate what they saw on to fabric. I regret not having taken photos of their work... the results were absolutely wonderful. The best one was done by a Native American woman who already had some sewing skills. She had a part of the MacDonald's arch showing up in her window, lots of interior details, and she even cut pieces off of her actual curtains to use them in her little tapestry!

I find this whole process very interesting. Women who knew very little about South America could relate to these pictures and see how to speak of their own lives. And, Latin women, as well, have taken arpilleras beyond the market scenes or touristy vistas to document moments of tragedy, despair and outrage. This has been especially true in Chile, where women would meet clandestinely to sew together as a protest against human rights violations under the rule of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1989).

El Exilio en Chile documents some of the experiences and positions many exiles took during this time. The arpillera above shows people fleeing the country and going into exile in Argentina, Uruguay, the United States and other countries. The Needlework Manifesto, a fellow blogger, has this Chilean arpillera on her blog:

The piece asks, "Where are the detained who have disappeared?" Like many other South American countries during the 1970's, Chile lost thousands of its youth to torture and death for speaking up against its dictatorial regime.

Professor Marjorie Agosín, a Jewish exile from Chile, has received many awards for her work in human rights and her literary achievements. She is a professor in the Spanish Department at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Over the years, she collected many of these protest arpilleras and compiled them into a book, "Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Life: The Arpillera Movement in Chile, 1974-1994". Amazon's description of the book:

"This book tells the story of ordinary women living in terror and extreme poverty under General Pinochet's oppressive rule in Chile (1973–1989) and how their lives did and did not change following his reign. These women defied the military dictatorship by embroidering their sorrow on scraps of cloth, using needles and thread as one of the boldest means of popular protest and resistance in Latin America. The arpilleras they made—patchwork tapestries with scenes of everyday life and memorials to their disappeared relatives—were smuggled out of Chile and brought to the world the story of their fruitless searches in jails, morgues, government offices, and the tribunals of law for their husbands, brothers, and sons.

Marjorie Agosín, herself a native of and exile from Chile, has spent over twenty years interviewing the arpilleristas and following their work. She knows their stories intimately and knows, too, that not one of them has ever found a disappeared relative alive. Still, many of them maintain hope and continue to make their arpilleras. Even though the dictatorship ended in 1989 and democracy returned to Chile, no full account of the detained and disappeared has ever been offered. This book includes a history of the women's movement, testimonies from the women in their own words, and, for the first time, full-color plates of their beautiful, moving, and ultimately hopeful arpilleras. Anyone interested in the history of contemporary Latin America will want to read this powerful story."

The book has a forward by Isabel Allende, one of my favorite authors and another Chilean exile. She wrote a book, "My Invented Country" which looks at her time in Chile and has a fascinating insight to the concept of memory, reality, and history.

Most of us will not have such sorrowful stories or memories to tell through our work. We each do, however, have our own specific experience. I take two lessons from this post for myself: art is a powerful voice in society and in everything I make, I try to make it my own. Whether abstract or figurative, decorative, functional or visual, every piece we contribute reflects a collective voice of our experience as a people, moving forward with our own stories in the larger market of life.

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(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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