Arpilleras: Colorful 3-Dimensional Textiles From South America
Although the literal translation of the Spanish word arpillera is "burlap," the term is also used to refer to the colorful, three-dimensional quilts that have become a popular folk art in South America. A relatively recent art form, most of the arpilleras that you see today come from Peru, and reflect tranquil scenes of rural life in the Andes mountains. But these powerful works of art actually originated in Chile as expressions of grief and protest during the oppressive dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
History of Arpilleras
On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a dramatic coup against Chile's democratically elected government. In the months that followed, many so-called subversive Chilean citizens were murdered or disappeared. These desaparecidos (the disappeared ones)-primarily men-left behind wives, mothers, and sisters who were not only frantic with worry and grief about their loved ones, but now also had to find a way to support themselves and their families.
The Catholic Church stepped in, providing workshops to teach the women useful skills such as sewing, laundry, and the like. The instructor for one of these workshops was an artist, Valentina Bonne, who recognized that the women were too upset and grief-stricken to be able to learn anything. She encouraged them instead to express their emotions through their needlework and sewing.
It was in these difficult circumstances that arpilleras were born-a unique form of protest as well as art. The first arpilleras were made from fabric scraps, and in some cases, pieces of cloth from the clothes of the missing men. The women worked together in co-operative groups to make and sell their arpilleras. Through their art, they were able to say what they could not say in words.
The example above shows the women working in cooperative groups. The sign on the wall reads "Where are our detained disappeared?" (Image courtesy of Marjorie Agosin).
With bold lines and colors, the arpilleras depicted powerful messages of military violence and bloodshed. They were called arpilleras because burlap was the fabric most often used for the backing, but they also became known as "the cloth of resistance."
Since the arpilleras were needlecraft, they were considered "women's work," and were initially viewed by military guards and regime officials as insignificant. Eventually, some of the arpilleras that were smuggled out of the country by Peace Corps volunteers helped to alert the world to the atrocities that were taking place in Chile.
Even after democracy returned to Chile in 1989, the initial group of arpilleristas continued to meet. Although mass graves were later discovered, the fate of many of their loved ones remains a mystery. Yet, the bonds they formed with one another enabled them to cope with the pain and uncertainty, and they were able express their grief through their works of art.
In the 1980s, arpilleras made the transition to the neighboring country of Peru. During this time period, a group known as the "Shining Path" was terrorizing the country. They engaged in guerrilla warfare, and some of the most brutal attacks were directed at the peasants in the Andean highlands. Many of these people fled their rural homes for the slums and shantytowns of Lima. The circumstances of these women were similar, in many ways, to those of their counterparts in Chile, and they, too, turned to arpilleras as a means of economic and social support.
Over the years, the subject matter has become lighter, and the colors brighter. What began as one of the most important and fundamental political resistance movements, now has its place in Latin American popular culture.
In Peru, the women formed cooperative groups and worked together to develop their craft. Today they share their talents and expertise and all benefit from the sale of their work.
No longer used as a political force, Peruvian arpilleras are generally more whimsical, with brighter colors and more cheerful subjects than the earlier Chilean arpilleras. The three-dimensional aspect of the craft has increased, as well, with brightly colored balls of fabric representing fruit, tiny baskets, and miniature sandals or ponchos all being common embellishments.
Although the women who make the arpilleras do not live in the mountains today, they have vivid memories of earlier times, and the subject matter for Peruvian arpilleras is often drawn from the life in the rural highlands that the women had to leave behind. As a result, they create beautiful country scenes that include mountains, trees, animals, the village architecture, fields of crops, and people. Going to the market is an important part of daily life for rural people. Wonderful market scenes, which depict foods, vegetables, clothing, and household items are often favorite subjects. Weddings, local dances, Carnaval, and community celebrations are also common subjects.
Over time, as the women are exposed to new ideas and topics, the art form grows and evolves, as well. The subject matter has become more wide-ranging and may include biblical scenes such as Noah's ark, or scenes from an African jungle or other far-flung locations. The sizes and shapes of the arpilleras have changed,too. In addition to the standard rectangular block, you may see round arpilleras or over-sized wallhangings with thousands of tiny details. Intricate, three-dimensional arpillera detailing is added to children's clothing, eyeglasses cases, skirts for Christmas trees, and many other gift items. And there will, no doubt, be more innovations as the arpilleras continue to provide an important means of economic support for the women who make them and their families.