Grupo de Artesanías Choibá. 2003. Telón Choibá Atrateño Photograph from the Colombian Digital Archive of Testimonial Textiles 

Artesanias Choiba.jpg


By Lorna Dillon and Erika Silva

One of the most renowned kinds of textile art in Latin America is the Chilean arpillera. An arpillera is an artwork, formed of appliqué or embroidery on a background of sack cloth. The word arpillera is a Spanish term, which originally refers to the coarse woven fabric that is used for sacking. In the UK jute is the material that has traditionally been used for this purpose. In the US the term burlap is used to describe this kind of material. This cloth was commonly available in the 1960s and 1970s and some artists used it as a backing material for textile art. The Chilean artist Violeta Parra (b.1917, d.1967), for example, sometimes used jute as a backing material for bold woollen embroideries. Parra’s embroideries (often referred to as arpilleras) were an artistic hybrid, blending the conventional subjects of high art (historical, religious and domestic scenes) with the rustic aesthetic of needlecraft.

In 1973 the Chilean government was overthrown in a military coup and this led to the sixteen years of dictatorship. During the dictatorship left-wing people were persecuted. 3200 people were killed or disappeared by the dictatorship. In some shanti-towns the families of the disappeared began making appliqués about their experience of living under the dictatorship. These appliqués were also known as arpilleras. They were exported by the Church and sold overseas to generate an income for the communities. Most of the people who created these arpilleras were women. They became known as arpilleristas.  Compositionally the arpilleras are very simple: they depict scenes of everyday life and usually include fabric figures or tiny fabric dolls, houses, mountains and signs of peace, such as the dove. At first glance, the original arpilleras appear as if they could have been made by children. However, they are also works of narrative art, and their simple compositions often detail human rights abuses such as disappearances and torture, as well as other examples of the hardships experienced under the dictatorship.  Some of the original arpilleras contained pockets. The arpilleristas would hand write notes and put them in these pockets.  Many Chileans went into exile during the dictatorship and some of them also made arpilleras as gifts for friends or as a collaborative way of expressing the experience of exile.

After the dictatorship, the arpillera tradition continued and the arpilleristas continued to campaign for their disappeared loved ones. Individual arpilleristas such as Victoria Díaz became renowned for their work. In the late twentieth century some of the arpilleras became less political and more decorative. The tradition continues in the twenty-first century. Groups such as Memorarte, led by Erika Silva and individual arpilleristas such as Cecilia Imaña, continue to use the artform as a way to campaign on a variety of social justice issues.  

Colombian Testimonial Textiles 

By Lorna Dillon and Isabel González Arango

Colombia has a rich history of handcrafted fibre products, but it was only in the second half of the twentieth century that Colombian textile art began to be included in the art history of the country. This inclusion was thanks to the development of the textile industry, the recognition of artists such as Olga de Amaral, Marlene Hoffmann and Graciela Samper, as well as academic interest, which led, in the late 70s to the development of university programmes specialising in textile design. These courses brought textile art into dialogue with architecture and artisanal textile traditions.

There is one phenomenon, however, in the history of Colombian textile art which is particularly remarkable, and which differentiates the art of the country from the art of other regions. This phenomenon is the proliferation of community sewing groups that use fabric art to narrate, document, denounce and heal their experience of the armed conflict in Colombia.

The Colombian armed conflict is complex, because the plurality of historical actors; the circumstances surrounding its origin and continued trajectory, and the fact that over 70 years of armed confrontation – with various peace agreements – has left 48,000 people missing; more than 270,000 people killed, and nearly eight million people displaced. Throughout the country, individuals and groups of people use textile art as a way of narrating their experiences of the conflict. The embroideries, quilts, banners, and appliqués that they create, are brought to public spaces in different ways. They are sometimes part of campaigns for the right to truth, justice, reparations and cease fire, and sometimes used in museum exhibitions. They are also used in politically impactful events, such as commemorations or ceremonies in which the peace signatories assume responsibility for some of the atrocities of the conflict.

There are estimated to be around 48 community needlework groups in the country. The groups use different forms of expression such as embroidery, sewing and weaving. Often women’s groups work together to make narrative textiles that take the form of tapestries, quilts, or handkerchiefs. Some work on their own at home, then meet with others in collective spaces. This shared social experience is also a meaningful part of their projects. The groups connect with each other and with the international community through events, through exhibitions and through social media platforms such as Facebook. They have developed rich pedagogies producing testimonial textiles, exploring fabric art as a language and a tool in addressing conflict.

One of the groups, Mujeres tejiendo sueños y sabores de paz (Women Stitching Dreams and Tastes of Peace), won the Colombian Peace Prize in 2015 for the development of methodologies that develop resilience, forgiveness and reconciliation in their region. Other notable groups include the Costurero de la memoria kilómetros de vida (Memory Sewing Group), the Costurero Tejedoras por la Memoria de Sonsón (Sonsón Memory Sewing Group) and the group Artesanías Choibá (Choiba Crafts). Many of the groups are documented on the Colombian Digital Archive of Testimonial Textiles.  

Memorarte. 2017. Extract from the embroidery Alegoría a Violeta Parra. Photo by Marcelo Aragonese