The word arpillera comes from the Spanish term for burlap, as the vast majority of these tapestries were sawn on pieces of burlap or flour sacks. These textiles are a form of South American folk art which uses colourful embroidery and appliqué to depict scenes from everyday life.
The most famous arpilleras are from Chile, which were used as a form of resistance and denouncement of the human right violations perpetrated during the Pinochet dictatorship (1973 - 1990). Their apparent joyful outlook masked the true message behind the cloth, often depicting traumatic experiences of the people (arpilleristas, mostly women) who made the arpilleras. Seemingly unimportant, yet extremely powerful in delivering a message, arpilleras were underrated by the military junta: how could this typically feminine, an-aesthetic and unpolished craft be the only subversive and openly challenging medium of resistance?
September 11, 1973 marks the beginning of seventeen years of military dictatorship that ravaged Chile and its people. General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected socialist party of Salvador Allende in a coup d’etat. According to the military junta, this act was justified by the economic crisis and general impoverishment of the county brought by Allende’s poor political leadership. Pinochet’s military dictatorship was characterised from the start by the suppression of all political parties and engagements: persecuting and arresting political dissenters or whoever was suspected of illicit acts against the new government was the new norm. A sense of uncertainty and fear spread around the country, mostly affecting the poor living in the shantytowns of Santiago and other centres. Intellectuals, artists, writers, students and workers from all backgrounds (mostly men), were picked up from the streets, imprisoned and tortured, many of them simply disappeared (desaparecidos).
It is under these circumstances that the Pro-Paz (for peace) Committee was first funded to provide legal aid for the families of the desaparecidos. Because it stood in direct opposition to the military dictatorship, the Committee was dismantled only two years after its creation. However, the Catholic Church reorganised quickly and founded the Vicariate of Solidarity, over which Pinochet did not have any power, as it functioned within the laws of the Catholic Church of Rome. Similarly to Pro-Paz, the Vicariate provided health care, legal aid, meals and work. Additionally, it created handicraft workshops, one of which was dedicated to the making and selling of arpilleras. First founded as a way to generate a source of income, the arpillera workshops soon became social spaces, where women could be together and share their stories. The social aspect of the workshops created a support system. Women, united by their grif, were given an outlet to express their anxieties and to try to make sense of what was happening in Chile.
As mentioned above, arpilleras are not unique to Chile, yet what sets them apart from others is their political theme, the ones made in Santiago especially, helped form a culture of resistance. All around Chile - just like in other South American countries - arpilleras are used to depict mundane experiences and often present peaceful and pastoral sceneries. Figure 1 provides a perfect example of a typical folkloric arpillera made in Colombia. In this colourful picture we see moments of everyday life: farmers gathering their cattle or in the fields; men cooking; women working around the house etc…
The scenes of Santiago are much different in content, but do not differ in technique. As described by Betty LaDuke, there are three main techniques used on arpilleras: The flat or planar method, in which all shapes are attached to the burlap with various embroidery stitches around the edges of the figures (figure 2). Relief technique, in which we see doll-like figures being made separately to the rest of the arpillera and later are attached to it, providing a three dimensional aspect to the tapestry (figure 3a). Glue technique, in which previously-cut fabric shapes are simply glued on the arpillera and no stitches or embroidery are used (figure 4). 1
The first step to make an arpillera is to choose a topic. In the workshops, decisions were taken together and what was to be sawn on the cloth was agreed upon by everyone. Recurring motifs of blue skies, some clouds, a big yellow sun and the Andes set the scene. The material used was mostly donated by the Vicariate, but it is not uncommon to find pieces of the arpilleristas’ own clothes and even their hair. In some cases, other threedimensional elements are attached to the arpillera, such as: small twigs, tin foil, newspaper (figure 3b) or extra pieces of cloth loosely attached to the background to signify towels or open doors (figure 3a and 5). Arpillera making is not a sophisticated craft, in the sense that it does not require any previous embroidery experience or technical knowledge.
Arpilleras are used to tell the personal experiences of the makers: sorrow, hunger, death, unemployment, but also hope and dreams. A picture of children sitting around a table and a big pot on the stove - as seen in figure 3a -, is representative of the children's feeding program. Figure 5, instead, depicts a pawn shop, hinting at the unemployment crisis, when people had to sell their own goods to survive. Some arpilleras are self-evident, also thanks to the words embroidered on the cloth, like detencion (detention) on figure 2, where we see someone being arrested by two men. Other arpilleras, however, are more symbolic and minimal, such as in figure 4. This strangely monochromatic arpillera evokes a sense of loneliness. A female figure stands alone in an empty room, looking at a picture on the wall: perhaps someone who disappeared. The glooming shadow of a soldier stands outside her window: an ever-present reminder of the oppression of the military dictatorship. The abduction or the search for the desaparecidos is a recurring motif. As Marjorie Agosting beautifully writes: “another essential aspect of the arpillera is its incorporation of the legacy of the missing body. In defiance against military dictatorship that disappeared people and tried to erase all traces of their existence, the mothers often include in the tapestry a representation of the body of the missing child as a constant motif.” 2
The military junta underrated both arpilleras and women, who were often encouraged to keep their traditional gender roles of daughters, mothers and wives. Yet, the abduction of husbands and sons left no choice to women but to leave their homes and find the means to survive. Women had to move from their domestic roles to the traditional male roles of providers. The workshop contributed to form this new political identity as women were given a way to earn money and to be politically active. The dictatorship forced women to engage with public life and to voice their pain and grief. Many arpilleristas did not only embroider their stories but organised protests, gaining a power that was previously unknown to them. In this culture of machismo, women used their privileged position as the “weaker” sex, to - safely and - openly challenge the military, which did not take the work done by women seriously since taking action would have been perceived as validation. 3
Today, arpilleras are known around the world for their denunciatory character and the living archive they embody. They can be described, as Jacqueline Adams writes, as solidarity art: made by people living in a state of violence and/or economic difficulty, which is distributed and bought to express solidarity to the makers and to give some financial help. Making arpilleras in communal settings also provide emotional help, an outlet for people to express their pain and dreams, to share their story with others and to ask for help in the process. Nowadays, even if the arpillera workshops are no longer active, many women continue to embroider their lives on burlap and have inspired others to use this craft to denounce injustice. The women of the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) of Brazil, use arpilleras to talk about land dispossession and the ecological crisis. A comprehensive international collection of arpilleras has been gathered by Roberta Bacic, a Chilean researcher based in Northern Ireland, who founded the online archive: Conflict Textiles.
Arpilleras are an instrument of empowerment, a language of protest and testimony, an archive of memories.
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