Fibre Art & Social Change

Fibre Art & Social Change

Art-making and objects of art hold a powerful role as tools of social change, particular within grassroots social movements. There are many contemporary examples of fibre art being used for social change from all levels of artists as an accessible and portable medium, such as the arpilleras of Chile in the 1970s and 80s. Many have examined the Chilean women’s resistance of the Pinochet dictatorship from a feminist perspective, which cannot be ignored. However, we can also view the arpillera movement as a form of collective memory making, whereby the artists use art objects as a witness to history and art-making for shared therapeutic capacity. This paper is not a debate of high art versus low folk art, as this dispute overshadows the more important discussion of the value and purpose of art and artistic practice. The role of arts processes in social change is a positive and empowering trend. By examining the use of textiles in arts practice and the social aspects of fibre art, particularly in the Chilean arpillera movement, we can see how these artists (arpilleristas) used fibre art to connect to the past and a view for the future.

Contemporary fibre artists and crafters often use textile art in the promotion of social justice and political activism. In 2003, Betsy Greer coined the term ‘craftivism’ to describe a particular type of social and political activism through the use of fibre art. “The very essence of craftivism lies in creating something that gets people to ask questions … we also demonstrate that the act of ‘making’ is important” (Greer, 2014, 8). In this way, art practices such as fibre arts provide a medium for different types of social agency (DeNora, 1999)—what Gibson (cited by Acord & DeNora, 2008) called affordances. The art object provides opportunities for specific perceptions or actions; they do not directly cause actions, nor are they blank slates to inscribe meaning. Using crafts for activism is not a new concept, and there are many political and social justice causes that are being raised through textile arts, both historically and currently. The American Red Cross had a volunteer force called the Production Corps of mostly women during both the world wars, encouraging citizens to ‘Knit Your Bit’ making socks, hats, mittens, and sewing bandages and uniforms (American Red Cross Museum). The British wartime government adopted the slogan ‘Make Do And Mend’ to inspire the home front war efforts—recycling old clothes and unraveling old knitting to darn socks (Craddick-Adams, 2005). In San Francisco in 1987, a group got together to create a quilt for friends lost to AIDS (The NAMES Project Foundation, n.d.). Today, the AIDS Memorial Quilt has more than 47,000 panels, includes a travelling gallery exhibition, as well as a Canadian version of the project. As we can see, “[f]abric has served as a tool of political communication through history and at times it has been as a medium of communication in places where it was illegal, or even deadly, to speak or write” (Prain, 2014, 81). Craftivism is not a new concept—just a new word—and it is seen in all different forms and cultures.

Fibre art and textile art cover a wide range of practices and materials. When considering the fibre art world, we’re considering an artistic practice that uses techniques including, but not limited to, knitting, crochet, cross-stitch, weaving, spinning, dyeing, sewing, embroidery, and rug hooking. These artistic practices typically use fibre materials, which range from plant-based like cotton or willow, to animal-based such as wool, alpaca, or angora. However, there are many artistic practices that blend the boundaries of this definition by using non-traditional materials with fibre art techniques, or using textiles in unexpected ways —such as Carol Milne who makes knitted glass sculptures (Milne, n.d.). As we examine how fibre arts—specifically Chilean arpilleras—are harnessed to create societal change, we can explore different social purposes for art and art-making.

To understand the importance of the arpilleras and arpilleristas who made them, a brief historical summary is required. In 1973, Chile came under the control of General Pinchet through a violent military coup. For seventeen years, people who spoke out against the military regime were killed, tortured, imprisoned, and “disappeared”, or exiled. Finally, by 1990, the dictatorship had ended when the power of popular opposition forced the General to step aside (Agosín, 2008). This opposition was, in part, initiated by the arpilleristas (Kornbluh, 2008, 2). These women, living in a patriarchal society, were dependent on a male’s income to support their family. “The military dictatorship used terror to govern. Censorship, curfew, exile, prison, torture, and desaparecidos—people taken by the police and never seen again—became a way of life for many Chileans. … They produced the conditions for economic growth on the back of the underprivileged” (Allende, 2008, ix). The Vicariate of Solidarity was a human-rights organization under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church in Santiago, and they hosted the first arpillera workshop in 1974 (Prain, 2014). Women would sew three-dimensional appliqué pieces and get paid for their work. Then the finished artwork would be exported for sale, many of which had notes sewn into clandestine pockets or messages calling for justice. Outside contact of both organizations and individuals was heavily monitored, but as it was the Church exporting these items, it was not under the same intense scrutiny of the military rule. The export and sale of arpilleras helped spread news of what was happening in Chile (Agosín, 2008; Moya-Raggio, 1984).

Although women were not allowed to assert their politics or speak out due to the dictatorship, as well as a predominantly patriarchal society, by sewing arpilleras they could tell their stories, express anger, sadness, or spread word. “Each arpillera could generate not only a meagre income, but also public discussion on an aspect of the ongoing abuses in Chile” (Kornbluh, 2008, 9); they were both a resource for survival as well as a mode of resistance. An arpillera may depict a village in vibrant colours with houses, people, and Chilean mountains that, to the uninformed, would see it as a benign bucolic scene (Bacic, 2008). However, if you examine it closely, there are women fetching water from a well because the running water has been cut off, school lessons taught outside because the electricity has been cut, and women performing traditional male tasks such as repairing a roof (Traini, 2013). Others are more overt, including stitched calls for justice, food, the right to education, and no more torture (Agosín, 2008). Art collectors and overseas activists began to display arpilleras in public forums, and human rights organizations facilitated tours, not only of the artworks, but also for the artists—the arpilleristas. After Chile’s return to democracy in 1990, the arpillera movement evolved into a campaign for memory, justice, solidarity, and activism.

The arpillera movement embodies several perspectives of the relationship between art and society summarized by Acord & DeNora (2008). Arpilleras allowed the creators to have their voices heard, as victims and witnesses. Moral, political, and personal messages were embedded in the art, as well as hidden beneath the fabric—demanding justice, memory, and recognition for the repressive era. In this way, arpilleras certainly are “communicative, expressive, and meaning-laden objects … social texts representing shared values of belief systems” (224). The communities we support and embrace are related to our previous experiences; the Chilean arpilleristas, through the hardships and oppression they experienced, harnessed these hardships and emotions for a purpose. “Stitching is an active process different from memorials or monuments, which capture a specific time and place” (Agosin, 17). The memorializing aspect of arpilleras is combined with the active art-making which the arpilleristas engage in. The artists were communicating sorrow, fear, anger, and truth. For Becker, art-making is a collective action (1974) which contains all the agents involved in creating a piece of art. This is especially applicable to the arpillera movement, in which the artists capture the collective history of their people, expressing the silenced and censored voices, networks of the church export and sell the art objects, and the buyer now holds this art as testimony to the suffering and hardship of the artist. In harnessing this collective memory, the art objects are also relating the narratives of the people and the country. They teach other artists and subsequent generations, even after the regime ended, how to make arpilleras to stand as living witness. Teaching one’s children and grandchild to stitch is a form of passing down a taste: an inheritance of cultural capital, a folk tradition. Chilean artists used their experiences during the dictatorship and the eradication of their culture and communities to create arpilleras to stay connected to family and their culture.  This embodies the theory of Raymond Williams (1958, reprinted in Highmore, 2002) about arts and culture as lived culture, it is the ordinary way of life for societies, and the shared values of a social group that can challenge existing structures and inequalities.

Lived culture is a community activity, like crafting, and connects to the concept of ‘trading zones’ (Marontate, 14 Jan 2015), a place where people communicate across boundaries. The “Arpillera workshops consisted exclusively of women who met several times a week in a church building” providing “a source of emotional and social support and group therapy” (Traini, 2013, 95). Art therapy as a role for professional therapists has become more documented since the turn of the century, although the practice itself has a much longer history in which the mind and hands are engrossed in a creative task aiding the release of emotions and creative energy (Edwards, 2014). Arpilleristas are seen as part of the early instigators of resistance to the Chilean dictatorship (Agosín, 2008), and the art objects they created served as a collective memory formation—witness to the dictatorship’s injustices. As Acord & DeNora (2008) describe, “[p]hysical artworks (conceived broadly) are instances of explicit culture that anchor more implicit cultural practices: conventions, taste preferences, and cultural inequalities” (225). These women, who were witness to many inequalities during a dangerous era of repression, still actively participated in the resistance by creating these works of art and calling for justice; they contain a not-so-recent history within their stitches.

Despite the integral addition of needlework to wartime efforts, the “domestic arts, were both devaluated by the predominant masculine society and shunned as associative with oppressive domestic labor” in subsequent years (Chansky, 2010, 681). In a similar way, Chilean women were also shunned by an oppressive society, and used that to their advantage. “While a man might be disappeared for attending a political protest, a woman could ask pointed questions through her sewing and go undetected” (Prain, 2014, 84). Fibre art, by its previous association as a domestic handicraft, appeared powerless. Thus it became a subversive way to speak out, because to the unobservant, arpilleras were ‘merely’ embroidered landscapes. Consequently, it is an interesting reversal of the notion of domestic labour for the arpilleristas to use fibre art as a counter to an oppressive regime. “Housebound and isolated in the past because she was both poor and female, she now moves from passive observer to active participant” (Moya-Raggio, 1984, 278). In this manner, the artists become social critics (Van Laar & Diepeveen, 1997). “She becomes an agent of change, a narrator of the people’s struggle, an expositor of the contradictions of the imposed system. She does not use words because words have been denied her. But she can speak through a skill traditionally considered feminine, the use of thread and needle” (Moya-Raggio, 1984, 278).

The work of arpilleristas has become a testimony, witness to the daily happenings, the history of the people, the culture, the country; they are “bold and bright testimonials of truth, monuments made of cloth, and patchwork documentation of a history that refuses to recede” (Kornbluh, 2008, 2). This process of collective art-making activates an outlet for emotion, thought, and action (DeNora, cited by Prior, 2013)—which supports the therapeutic value of the arts and art-making processes. Art-making—especially in the case of the arpillera movement—gives the artist a link to the past (connecting to culture, community, and loved ones) as well as a hope for the future (for political action and right to justice). In this way, fibre art for social change can be seen as a positive and empowering phenomenon.