How Chilean women utilised traditional hand craft to open the worlds eyes to Pinochet’s brutal regime.

18 Jul How Chilean women utilised traditional hand craft to open the worlds eyes to Pinochet’s brutal regime.

By craftivist and writer Hannah Bullivant

I first saw images of Arpilleras (or pretty wall hangings as I referred to them then) online years ago and I immediately warmed to the colours, the charming handmade style and the simple childlike imagery. That’s it. That’s was about as far as it got. Separately, I learned about the Pinochet regime in school, but I didn’t connect the regime with the Arpilleras until much later and it wasn’t until after that that I became aware of the incredible bravery and determination of the women who used Arpilleras to resist Pinochet’s dictatorship and raise international awareness of the systematic human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chilean Junta. An amazing and harrowing chapter of the craftivist story.

Life in our Poor Neighborhood. “This was created as a result of a workshop run by a nun, Sister Carolina.  Created towards the end of the dictatorship, it portrays life in the community— both the good and bad parts. The scene is happier than those created in the midst of the dictatorship.  Though the people are still poor and unable to afford their own electricity (note the wires tapping into the main power line), they are happier, celebrating all the comings and goings of life”

A brief history lesson for those of us who might appreciate a refresher; General Pinochet came to power in Chile after forcibly overthrowing the socialist President Allende in 1973. He governed until 1990 in what became a bloody, abusive and dictatorial rule of terror. With Pinochet at its head, the Chilean Junta quickly and brutally eliminated all political dissonance, specifically targeting socialist and leftist movements. Thousands were killed and many more ‘disappeared’. The Junta also took control of all aspects of civil society, including the provision of food, water, basic sanitation, energy and jobs.  The national stadium was used as a concentration camp, and torture and political repression became widespread. The sheer force and intolerance of the military frightened many into silence, but it was from this silence and terror that Chilean women found their voice and played a powerful and incredibly inspiring role.

Here They Torture. “There is a traditional background for this quilt but it is significant that the sun is absent and the mountains are bleak.  In fact the whole arpillera is very dark and sombre, a reflection, perhaps, of the arpillera’s topic.  The creator of this piece is using her arpillera to depict her personal experience of torture.  The blue cars are from Chile’s secret police.  In the yellow room, the creator of this arpillera is lying on the table, being tortured.”

The regime led to widespread unemployment, poverty, and hunger, leading women to organise together out of necessity, in order to find practical ways of feeding themselves. The Arpilleras workshops were born of this necessity to join together in order to survive; women came together to make and sell Arpilleras, a vital source of income. Women used the skills and materials they had available to them (often scraps of fabric) to generate an income, express their grief and anger and immortalise their deceased, exiled or disappeared loved ones.

They Dance Alone “La Cueca Sola is a very poignant piece in this exhibition.  The traditional Chilean dance, La Cueca, is danced in pairs—an important fact considering the dance is meant to represent the different emotions and stages of romance. In La Cueca Sola, though, the women dance alone.  Their husbands, sons, brothers, or lovers have been disappeared or exiled, so they continue the dance, wearing the image of their loved ones over their hearts.”

Initially sewing was seen as women’s work, and the Junta mostly left them to it.  This enabled the catholic church and other NGO’s to begin to smuggle the Arpilleras out of the country playing a vital role in raising international awareness of the brutality of the Pinochet regime. The Arpilleras also provided the women with an opportunity to express and record their grief and emotional turmoil about the death or disappearance of their loved ones, something that the regime and the poverty they lived in didn’t allow. In this way, a grass roots women’s movement based on survival and domestic craft became a powerful political movement.

I am predominantly inspired by the way that these brave women used skills and roles traditionally reserved for domestic and caring work to depict the realities of life under Pinochet, thereby redefining the domestic space. The Arpilleras also convey complex personal narratives in a moving, deeply personal and beautiful way.

I am in awe of the courage these pieces represent.  The bravery of the women who secretly met to create and illegally smuggle the Arpilleras out of Chile, the moving documentation of grief, loss, and poverty, and the traditional use of domestic craft as a powerhouse to an influential women’s grassroots political movement.

Chamber of Torture. “This is one of the most visually startling pieces in the collection.  Set against a simple black background, this arpillera speaks unapologetically about Chile’s history of torture. This arpillera shows people being tortured. It graphically depicts the experience lived by survivors. It shows these people in a dehumanized way, their features are not recognizable and signals this inhuman experience as not only lived by single individuals, but by significant groups of people.”

The bravery of the Chilean women operating under general Pinochet acts as an important reminder to us to not take our relative freedom and democracy for granted and to stand up against human rights abuses. It also makes me proud to be just a very small part of a present day movement which continues this unique and powerful form of activism within an incredible craftivist history.

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