Arpilleras are hand-made textiles, made by Chilean women from scraps of fabric to tell stories about life during the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990). First sailing under the political radar, due in part to their humble domestic origins, the arpilleras were eventually declared “seditious handcrafts”. Their makers, the arpilleristas, were reviled as subversive of the Chilean state and were persecuted for their critical stance and dedicated advocacy of human rights.
Curator Roberta Bacic, a Chilean now based in Ulster in Northern Ireland, brought approximately twenty pieces from her personal collection to stage an exhibition of arpilleras in Wellington, New Zealand, in conjunction with the Third International Conference on Visual Methods. In her conference keynote address, Roberta highlighted the historical and contemporary significance of the arpilleras as acts of political testimony, which have inspired similar works in other “contested spaces” around the world. She framed them as deserving the status of works of art, beyond “folk craft”.
The arpilleras were exhibited in St Andrew’s Church, in the heart of the city—a fitting location, as the MC pointed out, due to the important role of church communities in helping to support the arpilleristas and the Chilean community in exile. An opening night hosted by the Chilean community in Wellington and in the presence of the Chilean Ambassador to New Zealand brought together stories of the arpilleristas and their work in song, dance, poetry, story, and film.
This was an extraordinary exhibition, and an important moment for the Chilean community to have some recognition of its history. The Pinochet years are not “past”—many Chileans live with the legacy of this time. To see Chilean community members Ines and Katya dance La Cueca Sola, in memory of women whose husbands “disappeared” under the regime, brought some audience members to tears. The remarkable thing is that many arpilleras express a love of life and hope for the future. The message of the arpilleristas is ultimately one of democracy, justice and peace.
Arpilleras in contested spaces, at St Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington NZ, ends on 6 September.