The Colorful Appliqués
Arpilleras are panels made with a variety of fabrics that
are appliquéd to a background cloth. In some cases, parts
of the appliquéd fabrics are stuffed and sewn to the background
to create a three-dimensional work.
The craft of making arpilleras originated in Chile, as
a reaction to the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
His dictatorship, from 1973-1989, was characterized by repression,
poverty, censorship, exile, and fear that silenced the people of
Chile. Thousands of people, especially the men from the rural villages,
were arrested, taken from their homes, and many were never seen
again. In Spanish the word to describe the men and others who disappeared
is “desaparecidos.” Their wives, mothers, and
sisters were left alone to fend for themselves. For many it was
the first time they had to provide for their families and take care
of all of the household duties without the help of a man. Many of
the women made a concerted and continued effort to obtain information
about their missing family members, but when they sought to find
out their whereabouts, the government was silent and uncooperative.
In addition to their intense grief, the women were in desperate
need for a source of income.
An effort to help the women was offered through the Catholic Church
under the direction of the Vicariate of Solidarity. They set up
workshops in 1974 to teach the women new job skills. When Valentina
Bonne, a local artist, began working with groups of women in Santiago,
Chile, she recognized that they were so consumed by grief that they
needed an outlet for their sorrow. She gathered scrap fabrics, including
some from the clothing of the men, and arpilleras were
“born” as a spontaneous response to the women’s
need to tell their stories. The first arpilleras were small
and simple, but they expressed their feelings about the disappearance
of their men, narrated their plight, and drew attention to the political
situation in Chile.
As the arpilleras gained in popularity, people around the
world were made aware of the situation in Chile. Before long, the
arpilleras gave the women a powerful voice in the world
community as well as a financial means of support. Although the
literal translation of the word arpillera is “burlap”
for the backing of the work, it has come to mean “the cloth
of resistance.” In 1989, when democracy was reinstated in
Chile, the Vicariate of Solidarity considered their work finished
and discontinued the arpillera workshops. As Chile became
more industrialized, many women began to work in the factories and
had less time available to dedicate to making arpilleras.
Today many of the original arpilleras, are displayed in
museums or owned by a few individuals who collected them. It was
a humble beginning for what is today seen as a powerful form of
Arpilleras made the transition to the neighboring country
of Peru in the 1980’s. 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.
Their circumstances were similar in many ways to those of the women
in Chile, and they, too, turned to arpilleras as a means
of economic and social support. 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. Although
the women who make the arpilleras do not live in the mountains
today, they have vivid memories of earlier times. 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