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Crafts as a way into politics: Chilean arpilleras

IgnaciaOssul Vermehren22 February 2019

Co-authored with Trinidad Avaria

What are the role of crafts in political processes? Can crafts be a tool for individual or collective awareness? Can they open space for social justice for women? In December, we undertook an explorative workshop in the city of Santiago to answer some of these questions with women making Chilean arpilleras (burlap in Spanish), which are tapestries embroidered with scraps of recycled fabrics. The workshop was organised by the Chilean NGO Casa del Encuentro of Fundación Santa Ana that works with low-income women and their children, providing practical work skills for women and a safe space for children to play.

The motivation of the workshop came from our personal experiences. Having both grown up in Chile, we were familiar with the craft and we were aware of its political connotation during the military regime (1970-1980s). Over the last decade, we have both worked with low-income women in the country, looking at the cross section between gender and class, in a country that remains mostly unequal, segregated and machista. And this specific craft was an interesting entry point to discuss women’s participation in social and public life.

“No compromise on justice”
Image: The William Benton Museum of Art


The history

 The first arpillera workshops were organised in 1974 by the Catholic Church, Vicarate of Solidarity and the Association of Families of the Detained-Disappeared. Concerned by human rights violations and women’s struggles, they supported a space for women to grieve and help each other, through sewing and embroidery. Thousands of low-income women participated in workshops making arpilleras, the motives of the embroidery was a way to denounce the cruelty of the dictatorship. As such, the production and sale of the arpilleras was clandestine. They were sold abroad, and were bought by people in exile as well as left-wing European supporters.

More than 200 arpillera workshops in low-income neighbourhoods across Santiago, transformed the private and feminine nature of sewing and embroidery into the production of “political objects” that both challenged the dictatorship (Grindon & Flood, p. 11, 2014; see also Krause, 2004), and provided emotional relief for women (Frank, 1996). In doing so, they strengthened their political awareness by socialising with other women in the same situation (Baldez, 2002), and encouraged each other to take action. Ultimately, the making of arpilleras was a way for many women to engage with politics (Boldt & White, 2011).

Women

In Latin America, it has been widely documented by feminist researchers that women’s political participation has been initiated by their roles as mothers (Baldez, 2002; Chaney, 1979). This does not necessarily challenges their traditional gender roles, but instead uses it to become active in the public sphere (Classic examples include, Madres de Mayo in Argentina and Ollas Comunes in Chile).  After the dictatorship, women were expected to go back to their traditional roles, as they no longer existed in a state of exception. However, what happens when democracy is institutionalised, but women remain in a position of inequality? What spaces to participate exist and how can they access those spaces? Almost 40 years have passed since the official arpillera workshops closed. However, low-income women in many parts of the country continue meeting to make tapestries, passing the knowledge from one to the other.

Fundación Santa Ana works in two of the same areas where these workshops started decades ago. In their experience, they see how the role of women is still shaped by deep gender and class inequalities. These are manifested in low employment opportunities and strong reproductive responsibilities, leaving them bound mostly to the private space of the household and with few spaces to socialise, beyond with their families. This does not only have consequences for the women themselves, but also to their children. As the NGO has documented, women confronted with the loneliness of raising children mostly on their own are likely to transfer that frustration to their children. It is in this context that the workshop emerges, as a way of understanding how women from the same area are able to play a different role and take up other spaces of socialisation and engagement beyond the home space.

The workshop

Workshop in Santiago de Chile exploring the meaning of arpilleras today, December 2018. Source: Authors

In December of 2018, we ran a workshop with Renca’s arpilleristas (women that make arpilleras) and women from the area. The arpilleristas have worked in the craft for 20 years, and lived through the dictatorship (although many would not discuss it), continue making arpilleras to sustain their households, and say that arpilleras “saved their lives” from depression, separations and other afflictions. During the workshop, they taught the craft and shared their stories.

From the workshop we can see that contemporary arpilleristas’ work does not necessarily target a specific political event, however it remains an important activity as a source of income – selling finished items in Chile and abroad – and as a space to socialise and support each other. Although living conditions are radically different to those during the dictatorship, the growing economic inequality of the country, paired with a machista culture and conservative gender legislation, keeps low-income women in a challenging position. As such, the three aims of arpilleras during the 1980’s – (i) economic support, (ii) a space to socialise, and (iii) create awareness and become effective leaders, remain relevant today.

References:

Baldez, L.(2002), Why Women Protest: Women’s Movements in Chile, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Boldt, K., & White, T. (2011). Chilean women and democratization: Entering politics through resistance as Arpilleristas. Asian Journal of Latin American Studies, 24(2), 27-44

Chaney, E. (1979). Supermadre: Women in politics in Latin America. Austin TX: University of Texas Press.

Grindon, G., & Flood, C. (editors) (2014). Disobedient objects. V&A Publications.

Krause, W. (2004) The role and example of Chilean and Argentinian Mothers in democratisation, Development in Practice, 14:3, 366-380.

The William Benton Museum of Art (2018). Accessed: https://benton.uconn.edu/exhibitions/arpilleria/images/

 

Ignacia is a Research Associate at UCL and has a PhD in Development and Planning (UCL). Trinidad is the director of Casa del Encuentro at Fundación Santa Ana and has a Master in Psychoanalysis (Universidad de Chile).

Towards an Autonomy of Housing – The Legacy of John F C Turner in Latin America and Beyond: Event Review

Monique KRose13 March 2017

 

Reflections from the ‘Towards an Autonomy of Housing’ event that took place on the 22nd of February 2017 and was presented by the UCL Development Planning Unit (DPU) as part of the series DPU Dialogues in Development.

turner1

 

Industrialisation, a well-known driver for rural to urban migration, creates the increased demand for housing as a by-product of a swelling city. Emerging cities in developing nations, lacking the capacity to respond to a rapidly increasing urban population tend to become inundated with the enormous demand for housing, which poses a problem with no immediate solution. A housing deficit left unaddressed gives rise to the development of informal settlements by people perceived to be left with limited options. In an effort to find their own solutions, settlers “illegally” create unplanned neighbourhoods in areas not fit for development and deficient of infrastructure and services.

 

In the case of Lima, rural migrants who rushed to the city for employment and enterprise found themselves in overcrowded and shabby ‘tugurios’. In the 1950’s, individuals frustrated with forking out huge portions of their income for high-cost rent in exchange for sub-standard living conditions formed community groups to plan major land invasions in the hills surrounding the centre of Lima. The strong networks formed by the invaders made it difficult for authorities to action any form of evictions against them. The invasions took place around the same time that John F. C. Turner, a British architect who had been closely examining housing policy and programs in Lima, wrote his first report in 1959. The government of Peru tried and successfully relocated some squatters to government land. However, the invaders of El Ermitaño stood their ground forcing authorities to develop strategies to take into account their needs through slum-upgrading, rather than to resist the young settlement. Turner, despite this, critiqued the implementation of these processes in his early career, finding them to be insubstantial in addressing the dwelling needs of the communities they were to service. The residents of El Ermitaño, with the help of Turner’s advocacy, were granted legal tenure and were able to avoid evictions and demand municipal services.

turner2

Dr. Katherin Golda-Pongratz, a German architect who followed Turner’s work closely while completing her PhD in Architecture in Peru, became interested in and is now referencing Turner’s contribution to El Ermitaño in her own work. She gave an anecdote about how the two have collaborated on the Spanish publication of the book Autoconstrucción which explores Turner’s 1948 writing. The book references Patrick Geddes’ pattern of relationships in the “notation of life” which has influenced much of Turner’s philosophy. The book will feature other articles written by John and translated in to Spanish including an entry for the magazine Architecture and Design that was the precursor to the film A Roof of My Own.

 

Golda-Pongratz further explained how the research process of completing Autoconstrucción led to the resurfacing of the 30 minute documentary guest-edited by Turner in 1963 and released the following year by the United Nations Centre for Building and Planning. The version originally released to the public aired void of an integral address from then President Fernando Belaúnde.

 

A Roof of My Own takes the viewer into the arena of the autonomy of housing in the 1960’s. It highlights the political, social and personal discourses of the time in the settlement of El Ermitaño in northern Lima and demonstrates how ordinary people were managers of their own house construction. The case of El Ermitaño underscores Turner’s concept that informal settlements are not to be viewed as a problem but an opportunity to provide solutions to the problem of housing.

 

In his introduction of the video, Turner touched on the relevance of the film in today’s housing climate where young professionals worldwide find themselves not earning enough to save for a downpayment on a home. They are instead forced to stay at home with their parents or are caught in a vicious cycle of settling in expensive, sub-standard housing which consumes most of their income, hindering their capacity to save. He also stated that housing policies that aim to provide homes that the poor cannot access is not a suitable to rectify a housing deficit.

 

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A Roof of My Own has inspired Golda-Pongratz to continue the legacy of Turner’s work by creating a sequel to the film. She hopes to show her continuation in the same community centre in El Ermitaño where the original film was screened by the invaders. El Ermitaño is now considered an ‘arrival city’ where Golda-Pongratz anticipates that the second chapter will provide a link to the new generation of residents. The narrative will explore the precarious living conditions of families living on the lomas, increasing the pressure and encroaching on the fragile landscapes. The trailer for the new film asked probing questions relating to the ‘limits to growth’, the role of land traffickers in urban expansion as well as the role of the residents in place-making and shaping the future of the El Ermitaño.

You can view the lecture here:

You can hear the lecture in the audio podcast here:


Monique Rose is an Architect and Chevening scholar from Jamaica studying for a MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development. Her research interests are in housing and disaster risk management in the Global South. This year she has joined the UrbanArk Project team and will write her dissertation on the relationship between urban planning and disaster.