Crafts as a way into politics: Chilean arpilleras
By Ignacia Ossul Vermehren, on 22 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.
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).
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.
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.
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).