by Abaki Beck
Art is a powerful way to not only educate and empower, but to create community among the creators. Our Feminist Hero Friday this week are historical and contemporary Chilean arpilleras quilters, who use the medium to talk about history and contemporary political struggles.
Arpilleras are colorful patchwork quilts and banners embroidered on burlap sacks. They developed in Chile during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s. Women used arpilleras as a place of political protest and subversion, creating art about the dictatorship, the disappearance of family members, and other traumas. The use of arpilleras was accessible for two reasons: they can be made from any scraps of fabric, and are easy to carry around or conceal as non-political work if necessary. They were both a critique of dictatorship, and became a source of income for women whose husbands had been imprisoned or killed during the dictatorship; the Roman Catholic Church hosted arpillera making workshops and sold them abroad. Arpilleras from this era act as primary sources of history; hundreds are owned by the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago.
Silvia Urbano is a contemporary Chilean embroiderer with a passion for arpilleras. She previously taught embroidery to women and families of those “disappeared” (killed or tortured during the dictatorship), and after learning about the history of arpilleras at the Santiago museum, she decided to create a contemporary group to continue the practice, titled Memorarte (memory and art combined). Based in Santiago, the aim of the group is both to teach women embroidery and to act as a space to discuss issues of social justice and human rights. Similar to their historical counterparts, these women create arpilleras that comment on political and social issues. They meet each week to sew, learn, and discuss. Urbano emphasizes that the arpilleras they create today are not to record history, but to record the present, as did those during the dictatorship. For example, members of the group have embroidered stories about re-writing the dictatorship era constitution (above), images of women with missing eyes after a Chilean woman’s eyes were gouged out during an assault, and created a series with doves representing those who disappeared or died during the dictatorship. They often attend marches and other political events with their arpilleras.
Today we celebrate Memorate as social justice agitators, artists, and history preservers. Finding creative and diverse ways to record our stories is essential. As Silvia Urbano said in an interview with Cecilia Nowell, “Embroidering about the past has value, but who embroiders about today? Who embroiders so that one day this moment will be remembered?”