Arpilleras are brightly colored patchwork pictures made by groups of women (also known as arpilleristas) in Chile during the military dictatorship (1973–90) of Augusto Pinochet. Constructed from simple materials such as burlap and scraps of cloth, they typically depict scenes of hardship and violence that many women experienced during the dictatorship due to impoverished living conditions and government repression. Arpilleras were made in workshops organized by a committee of the Chilean Catholic Church and then secretly distributed abroad through the church's human rights group, the Vicariate of Solidarity. The production of arpilleras provided a vital source of income for the arpilleristas, many of whom had been left in a state of financial insecurity due to widespread unemployment and forced disappearances of their husbands and children, who became known as desaparecidos. Arpilleras often depicted expressly political themes and openly denounced the human rights violations of the Pinochet regime, and are currently recognized as an example of subversive women's art in an authoritarian political context.
In September 1973, following months of political tensions and social unrest in Chile, the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a US-backed coup d'etat carried out by the Chilean military forces under Augusto Pinochet in response to Allende's leftist reforms and the perceived threat of communism. From its first days in power, the Pinochet regime was characterized by widespread human rights violations. In the period immediately following the coup, the junta declared a state of emergency and engaged in arbitrary arrests and abolished all political parties and unions, with tens of thousands of people facing torture, interrogation, and execution in the following years. It has been estimated that 3,000 people were killed or went missing for suspected political reasons over the course of Pinochet's 16 years in power. Additionally, the rapid shift from Allende's socialist policies to Pinochet's neoliberal reforms entailed a "shock treatment" on the Chilean economy, which saw a rapid decline in social spending and substantial layoffs in the civil service, resulting in an 18.7 percent unemployment rate by 1975.
Impact on women
Especially affected by the implementation of neoliberal policies were women from poor and working-class households, many of whom were left without a source of income due to widespread unemployment and political disappearances, and were thus forced to seek work outside the home for the first time. Pinochet's ascent to power affected opportunities for women's organization and visibility in politics, both among supporters and opponents of the regime. Upper-class women, especially those with ties to the military, were upheld by the government as examples of moral virtue and were incorporated into efforts to praise female domesticity and the patriarchal family model through participation in pro-government organizations such as the Centros de Madres and the Secretaría Nacional de Mujeres. Conversely, numerous groups with substantial women's participation emerged both out of opposition to the Pinochet government's repressive tactics and the need for economic subsistence. These groups included explicitly political groups that advocated for human rights and justice for the desaparecidos, mutual aid organizations that provided meals and taught practical skills, and communal workshops organized by the Catholic Church designed to provide employment opportunities.
Origins of the arpillera workshops
Shortly after the 1973 coup d'etat, various Catholic Church groups inspired by liberation theology began to organize in opposition to the military regime, one of which was the Vicariate of Solidarity. The Vicariate, a vocal opponent of the military regime and a voice for human rights, worked to provide assistance to Chilean citizens in the form of legal aid, health care, and employment. In March 1974, the first arpilleras workshops were held by the Vicariate of Solidarity, intended to provide unemployed women with a modest income, create a community for emotional support, and draw international attention to the repressive political situation through the sale of denunciatory artwork. An estimated 14 women, many of whom hailed from the shantytowns of Santiago, participated in these initial workshops. At the height of the arpillera movement, approximately 200 workshops were held in Santiago, each with roughly 20 participants and three meetings per week. At these workshops, women would gather together and stitch arpilleras in exchange for funds. At the end of each gathering, a treasurer would collect the arpilleras for sale overseas to human rights organizations, NGOs, and groups of Chilean exiles. After receiving compensation for her arpilleras, each woman would contribute a small percentage of her payment to a collective fund to ensure the workshops' survival. These meetings were held in discreet locations such as church basements in order to evade government detection.
While an estimated 80 percent of the arpilleristas came from poor or working-class households, the remaining 20 percent came from upper-middle class households, primarily motivated by the disappearances of family members and the desire to show solidarity with the victims of political violence. While some of the participants arrived at the workshops with preexisting political inclinations, a number having been supporters of Salvador Allende, the majority had been previously uninvolved in politics and subsequently developed leftist and pro-democracy leanings through the political atmosphere fostered by the workshops and conversation about the shared experience of having lost family members to the regime.
Form and thematic content
Arpilleras were intended to be formally simple and accessible to everyday women with no artistic training. Given the scant resources of the Vicariate of Solidarity and the individual workshop participants, arpilleras were made from the cheapest available materials, such as flour sacks, scraps of cloth, used thread, and discarded objects. Most arpilleras were constructed from thick hessian canvasses, with colorful pieces of fabric stitched together in appliqué style to form images of people, buildings, city streets, and landscapes. Many included three-dimensional elements, such as small dolls stitched atop the fabric. Arpilleras were often characterized by the tension between the vibrant, colorful imagery created by the woven pieces of fabric and their serious imagery and somber political messages.
Because workshop attendants encouraged discussion about political repression and economic injustice, and at times explicitly stated their goal of generating sufficient international outrage to necessitate a return to democratic rule, the arpilleristas often depicted expressly political themes. In addition to everyday scenes of Santiago shantytowns and the Andean landscape, the arpilleras often referenced human rights violations and state violence, poverty, and the lack of women's political rights. Arpilleras also commonly bore the faces of the arpilleristas' disappeared family members. Marjorie Agosín, a Chilean-American writer and arpilleras scholar, has compared the visual language with which the arpilleristas demanded justice for the desaparecidos with that of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, who wore photographs of their disappeared children during the Dirty War. Many arpilleras also included text stitched into the fabric, with short political messages that demanded to know the fate of the desaparecidos and decried the lack of women's political and economic rights.
Sociologist Jacqueline Adams has noted that in the early 1980s, the Catholic Church grew less vocally critical of the Pinochet regime and dismissed the Vicariate's more radical staff members, which she contends led to a shift in the content of the arpilleras. She argues that the arpilleristas grew less denunciatory in their work and shifted focus from political themes to tranquil images of everyday life, knowing that the Vicariate would reject any work deemed too subversive.
The Pinochet government maintained widespread censorship policies over artistic expression. Due to the threat of censorship and government repression, most arpilleras were made anonymously, representing a collective voice of female suffering. During the early days of the workshops, Chilean police forces confiscated numerous arpilleras, while members of the military denounced them as defamatory after discovering a parcel of arpilleras en route to Europe at Santiago's airport. Arpilleras faced censorship for the portrayal of subversive themes and were thus rarely sold locally or displayed in domestic galleries. They were eventually outlawed entirely, though the workshops continued through the end of Pinochet's rule.
During the dictatorship, arpilleras gained international attention through their distribution by the Catholic Church and organizations such as Amnesty International and Oxfam UK. The primary purchasers of arpilleras were North American and European human-rights activists who wished to express their solidarity with victims of the regime, as well as Chilean exiles living abroad who hoped to raise international opposition to poverty and political repression in Chile. While the formal workshops ceased in 1989 with the reestablishment of Chilean democracy, the tradition continued through the work of independent arpilleristas.
Since the transition to democracy, arpilleras have been shown internationally in the United States and throughout Europe. The arpillera movement has been lauded for its visual representation of life under the Pinochet regime and for its subversive treatment of human rights and gender issues, having been displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum's 2014 Disobedient Objects exhibit. Chilean novelist Isabel Allende has remarked of the arpilleras, "With leftovers of fabric and simple stitches, the women embroidered what could not be told in words, and thus the arpilleras became powerful forms of political resistance... the arpilleras flourished in the midst of a silent nation, and from the inner patios of churches and poor neighborhoods, stories made of cloth and yarn narrated what was forbidden."
Arpilleras have reappeared in Chile as recently as 2011, condemning the treatment of the indigenous Mapuche people by the Chilean government. They have also inspired stylistically and thematically similar works of art in other countries that have faced state violence, such as Colombia, Peru, Zimbabwe, and Northern Ireland.
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