This article was first printed in PETRIe 66 (2014). It is part three of a three-part series.
Zuzu Angel and Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo were not alone though: there were many other women living in South America suffering political repression yet unable to instigate nationwide change. Regardless of their circumstances though, scores of these women continued to find strength in their traditional maternal roles, letting their crafts make the boldest statements.
In September 1973, General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected socialist leader Salvador Allende and seized power. He instigated a programme of state terrorism - driving up the number of ‘disappeared’ to several thousand - and authorised the ‘Caravan of Death’, an execution squad that toured Chile killing political opponents. For a group of women living in Chile at this time, making arpilleras - or colourful patchwork quilts - was a means of dealing with the dangers of arbitrary political power, the resulting instability of the economy and the personal loss they had experienced at the hands of such a brutal dictatorship.
Traditionally, women had always made tapestries from scraps of old clothes and rags, but the arpilleras had more significant origins. The craft offered economic support to the country, particularly when many women and children, having lost their husbands and fathers, were left without a means of income. The church provided the materials, and then bought the quilts back from the women in order to sell them outside Chile, putting the profits back into further production and social outreach groups. The carefully crafted expressions of personal grief were subsequently given an international profile and platform.
Many of the women whose souls were woven into these patchworks bore the same burden as Las Madres - they were commemorating relatives who had disappeared, been taken prisoner or killed during the Dirty Wars. With this raw personal connection, the quilts became a documentary, not only of their own life experiences, but also those of a nation in turmoil.
These single frame narratives, often made with scraps of their own clothes and those from missing loved ones, show the passive but strong sense of determination these women possessed; fighting a political battle with motherly love. Like Zuzu’s embroidered dresses, the poignancy of these arpilleras comes from the child-like simplicity of the designs and the juxtaposing connotation of the images.
Many of the arpilleras are decorated with missing persons, political statements, domestic scenes and bodies with question marks. But while it is easy to group these crafted scenes of history together, it is important to remember that there is an individual story behind each one.
On July 2, 1986, a group of young protesters were attempting to build a barricade in Santiago before a national protest against Pinochet’s government. Before they could begin, they were found by a military patrol. Carmen Gloria Quintana and Rodrigo Rojas, as well as their friends and neighbours, were overtaken. They were roughly questioned, beaten, and then sprayed with gasoline.
Even at this point, as Quintana remembers, she did not think anything else would happen to them. “It crossed my mind that it was all a joke,” she said in an interview with the BBC, 27 years after it had happened; “...That we would be set free and I would be able to wash it off.” Instead, the soldiers shot an incendiary device at them, and she, in her own words, became “a human torch.” She watched Rojas burn alongside her. Despite suffering terrible burns across 60 per cent of her body, she survived. Rojas did not.
This horrific story was never reported in Chile, and the international press was largely oblivious until Quintana began to speak out about her ordeal and the human rights abuses in Chile after 1988. For the arpilleristas, however, this was exactly the sort of story they aimed to document. The quilt produced after Quintana and Rojas’ arrest compresses their ordeal into a single scene.
While a picture speaks a thousand words, the images reclaimed the agony of these stories for those who were actually affected by them. They put a quilted face to the bare statistics of the victims of the regime. They allowed those who saw the quilts to understand that no dissident, no passerby, no soldier exists alone - but they are part of a familial and social network, who are shattered by their death or disappearance. These quilts pulled together the intricate threads of a shared existence.
The stories of Zuzu Angel, Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo and the arpilleristas are all very different: a fashion designer, an apolitical protest group and a community project. What they all have in common, however, is a sense of union and motherhood. Each has taken the resources in their hands and woven their souls, their stories and their personal losses into a peaceful and poignant placard of protest.
Words: Lucy Garrett
Artwork: To Meet My Past, Tracey Emin (1700 - 2010)
Image source: Cachando Chile