In the wake of Saudi Journalist, Jamal Khashoggi’s disturbing disappearance, I can’t help but be reminded of the many other people that have disappeared because of political persecution. Will we ever find the truth about Khashoggi? I hope we do; however, history has shown us that many families never discover the truth about their loved ones.
In 2011 I published my graduate thesis entitled, Chilean Arpilleras 1975-1990: An Art of Trauma and Memory. It discusses the political textiles created by Chilean women who banded together to search for their lost loved ones, console each other, and protest the military regime of Augusto Pinochet. An outlet for them to deal with the trauma and protest the violence they experienced materialized in arpillera workshops. This post offers five takeaways that unfortunately reveal the tragic consequence of history’s tendency to repeat.
Arpilleras are appliqué panels with cotton or burlap bases composed of scraps of fabric that are arranged to create visual narratives. Through the medium of the arpillera women were able to reflect upon and recreate their traumatic experiences and memories. The arpilleras demonstrate the visual transformation of memories into art objects with a convergence of lines, shapes, colors, textures, mass, and composition that expresses content and meaning.
Although many scholars feel unclear regarding the origins of the arpillera tradition, it no doubt became popularized by the workshops of rural Isla de Negra on the west coast of Chile during the 1960s. Philanthropist Leonora Soberino de Vera founded a formal workshop which included seventeen fisherman‘s wives in 1969. The arpilleristas of Santiago reflected the pastoral Isla de Negra arpilleristas in many ways.
Artists used both artistic traditions as a medium of emotional coping and expression during times of dire financial circumstances. The work from Isla Negra inspired the arpillera workshops in Santiago which adopted it as a format for their needlework. While the workshops were similar, they also had their unique characteristics. For instance, the arpilleristas of Santiago substituted farming and fishing scenes with scenes of urban unemployment, poverty, or political repression and urban crime.
After the military coup of September 11, 1973, that overthrew Salvador Allende; General Augusto Pinochet installed detention camps for political dissidents throughout Chile. In the detention centers, mass executions were staged, and tortures were committed. The prisoners, whose whereabouts were not reported, became known as the disappeared. Arpillera workshops were begun to open in 1975 by the Catholic organization the Vicariate of Solidarity and were dismantled with the transition to democracy in 1990.
At the time of the military junta coup d‘état on September 11, 1973, that overthrew Salvador Allende‘s government, Violeta Morales (the artist of the featured arpillera) lived alone with her five children in Santiago. After her husband abandoned the family, her brother Newton stepped in to support them. Newton also provided for his other sister and mother with his military pension and meager factory worker‘s salary. As a retired navy officer and president of the factory labor union, many saw Newton as a prime candidate for the military persecution that began after the coup.
Military officials soon began to question the Morales family and their friends about Newton‘s political activities. He had become increasingly active in underground movements, working against the new military regime to protect the oppressed. He moved from house to house and used several fake identities to avoid detection and persecution. Despite these precautions, three officials and an accomplice captured Newton when he went back to visit his mother, who had just fallen ill.
Like other relatives of missing persons, Violeta desperately began to search for her brother in prisons, hospitals, and morgues. She immediately began to participate in a pro-peace committee that sought out the disappeared and aided in the report of human rights violations. Like Violeta, many other mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters fell into economic and emotional despair when the family members they relied on went missing. In the quest for financial and emotional stability, affected women began to create arpilleras.
The arpillera above entitled Did You forget? If You Have No Memory You Will Vote Again for Pinochet, by Violeta Morales. While unconfirmed, the date of this arpillera alludes to the elections of 1988. The backdrop of the embroidery depicts a dark and urban scene with three large apartment or office buildings cross stitched against the sky. Against the sky, black stitched antennas protrude from the buildings. This addition does not simply distinguish the buildings‘ urban setting; the cross shapes of the antennas resemble the grave markers placed at large grave sites such as Patio 29, located in Santiago‘s General Cemetery.
In the foreground, Morales places eleven figures. A charcoal-colored satin cloth forms six of them which alternate between a total of five women clad in dresses of colorful tones of pink, red, yellow, and green. The color contrast draws the eye of the viewer into the picture plane and gives the dark figures a shadowy appearance. The five women depicted have simply stitched faces. The black color of their hair unifies the group of women despite their different clothing.
Each of the satin shadow figures between the women has white cross stitch outlines and are meant to represent the disappeared. The “x” shape of the cross stitch emphasizes the border between the living and the dead. Morales attached each of the women directly to their disappeared, thereby emphasizing the arpilleristas unity while simultaneously stressing the absence of their loved ones.
Interested in learning more? Check out the links below for books and references.