‘Readings in Nonviolence’ features
extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on
nonviolence, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions welcome).
“All through stitch”
Reflections by Maia Brown
on The Human Cost of War arpilleras & quilts exhibition & associated activities , Tower Museum, Heritage and Museum Service, Derry City Council
November 2010 – January 2011
My mother was evacuated during the war in England, but I never knew until after she had died. My Auntie told me, but my mother never talked about it. I do not know if it was a traumatizing experience or whether it felt like a holiday. She did not talk much at all about her past or her feelings. That is why I show her here with no mouth. I think about how things might have been if my mother had been a different person and talked more about her history.
I wanted to think about children being evacuated from war, but quickly it became about myself. When I was evacuated during the war in Germany I took my favorite puppet with me that had its own satchel. Sometime during the war I lost it. But my mother had sewn our name and address inside the satchel and a few years after the war, after we had returned, the satchel with my puppet inside appeared on the doorstep.
These two contributions to the arpillera workshop, “An Emotional View of Evacuation in Wartime,” hung in the air with particular weight. That day, sitting in Northern Ireland, as workshop participants, we were witness to two stories of a similar experience from the opposing sides of the Second World War. Women from around the globe, artists, textile enthusiasts, art therapy practitioners, activists, museum curators, and musicians, gathered in the Tower Museum for the quilt and arpillera exhibition, The Human Cost of War and associated activities such as workshops and round tables, among others. The Latin American tradition of arpilleras—hand-sewn and appliquéd textile pictures—holds within it histories of nonviolent activism and of women’s survival and strength. For the exhibition’s curator, Roberta Bacic, the focus of her work with arpilleras and textiles with a story “is always on the contribution to memory, resistance, testimony through nonviolent practice and community building and sharing.” For Pilar López from Fundacio Sant Roc, Badalona, travelling from Spain to attend the exhibition, arpilleras create an environment that enriches and deepens what she already knows about the power of art and its role in antiwar activism.
During this particular workshop, we had spent the day creating images of the effects of evacuation on children. I told the story of my relative’s escape to the USA from Germany on the last boat out before Kristallnacht and my own childhood of growing up in Seattle, Washington, in an Arab-Jewish community. I have grown up hearing family stories of evacuation, displacement, exile, and slaughter from both Palestinian North Americans and North American Jews. And, that day in the workshop, I explained how I have come to believe that denying the horrors of Israeli occupation does an injustice to both communities, that the separation barrier does more than separate Israeli Jews and Palestinians, more than separate Arabs and Jews in other corners of the world by implication, as it separates Jews from their own histories of exile and persecution that should be a lesson to us.
Spending a day stitching our stories together, we can see how they change before our eyes, sewn with new layers of significance. They become documents not only of personal histories but also of social and geographic histories. “It is like a kind of archive” one participant commented. The exhibition that takes life and enriches it with workshops and presentations features the sewn histories of dictatorship, civil war, occupation, and the violence of poverty, displaying work from Chile, Peru, Spain, Germany, England and Northern Ireland. The stitched and embroidered scenes capture particular moments of societies at war and reflect on the past as well as current atrocities: Soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the horrors of the war on Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009, to highlight two themes.
“The history of stitch and fabric and women”
Women attending these workshops came to arpilleras in many different ways. Janet Wilkinson, co-facilitator with Susan Beck of a recent series of arpillera workshops in Liverpool as a part of the Liverpool Irish Festival 2008, described her connection to arpilleras through her background in textiles in this way: “Textiles are a part of me and have been for a long time. The history of stitch and fabric and women.” When beginning to facilitate the Liverpool workshops that followed the exhibition Threads of Life: Quilts and arpilleras that speak out, curated by Roberta Bacic, what immediately struck her was the connection between the visual and the oral in the process of creating arpilleras—the time and space it creates for storytelling. “It is in the very nature of sitting in a group to sew that you create space and make time. The pace of hand-sewing is slow.” And that time, when you are “held within the group—the sewing circle,” is important when sharing traumatic stories, sometimes for the first time.
“There is also something about the visual part of it,” she added, “You can do it without words, which was useful in the work in Liverpool since we had such diverse groups some of whom had very little English.” Many participants reflected on the conversations and linguistic richness that arose from their arpillera workshops—the visual gave voice to participants who might not otherwise be to share their stories because of language barriers. The exhibition itself has been filled with different languages and individuals finding creative ways to communicate.
Translation and communication seemed profound themes throughout the week. Not only were participants operating in many different languages, but other translations were at play: the ways in which oral storytelling translates into the visual textile, the way that the stitched scene is then translated back into the word through the conversations and debates that it stimulates. In many ways, these pieces would not exist without the oral aspect that surrounds them during their creation and their entry into public space. Having the exhibition in Northern Ireland, a place where murals have great cultural and political significance, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a local Belfast muralist. He said that he sees painting murals as a very verbal act. The process of painting a mural is as much about the conversations that happen in the community around the mural as it is about the finished work. For him it is about the times when he is painting and he hears a child ask his grandfather what that picture is about. As a muralist, he sees himself as the instigator of intergenerational conversations, the preserver of communal histories and of a kind of political resistance to dominant narratives.
The Tower Museum exhibition focuses on this last translation from the visual to a tool of resistance and social justice. We are asked: When the “human cost of war” is depicted—the stories of horror and hardship sewn intricately and strangely beautiful—how does that translate into social action? In Chile, documenting the human rights abuses of the Pinochet dictatorship through textile spoke truth to power, raising awareness and fuelling an international solidarity movement with those resisting repression. Similarly, after official violent conflict has ended, arpilleras become objects and processes of commemoration and witness. Can we then ask how they contribute not only to individual or family memory but to the larger truth of recovery and reconciliation efforts? As one artist said of her work in the exhibition: “I do not want to evoke compassion but change.” What is the process of translation that we want to see—from art to social change, from systemic violence to a just peace?
Many current arpillera projects balance a methodological linkage to art therapy—a sense that sewing one’s stories in community can provide a kind of healing and transformation on a personal level—with a hope that the use of public (often museum) spaces has the possibility of raising awareness of the larger social issues that contextualize individual stories. Janet Wilkinson described one Liverpool participant who spent a day sewing her home in Iraq in flames after a bombing. She spoke very little English and none of her co-workers knew what she had escaped or what being a civilian in Iraq meant before she created the piece: “I don’t think we really anticipated how important this project would be to some individuals. There are some that I think had substantial life changes through doing these workshops.”
“I think the many different ways you can tell stories has come out of this conference.”
Most cultures have traditions of stitch and textile—quilting and weaving that tell the stories of generations of ancestors. In each context, these traditions fight against forgetting, and the act of remembering is initiated from women’s spaces. The song, “The Women Sew,” composed by Sue Gilmurray, a musician and songwriter who has been inspired by the histories of arpilleras, explores the power of this form of women’s memory: “Then the women sew, and their stitches shout against violent power shutting justice out; with a grip on rage that they won’t let go, see their fingers fight as the women sew.” Here, Gilmurray explores how the domestic and the quotidian of women’s “craft” can become a radical space that gives voice to marginalized histories and current realities of oppression.
One workshop participant commented that the exhibition has made clear that the making of arpilleras seems to be spreading very quickly and is being used in many different ways towards different ends. One woman from Barcelona has begun to work with individuals with disabilities, particularly in mental health work, while others are working with children or the elderly. Janet Wilkinson argues that creating arpilleras has been “affecting people’s lives in a positive way and all through stitch.”
Without simplifying the artistic merely as a means to an end, however, I believe the power of the arpillera is the knowledge that stitching is not enough. There is something that happens before, during and after the act of sewing, the act of creation, which translates the marriage of colour, form, and texture into a radical act of speaking truth—stimulating a society to look at itself and make a change. The challenge to all of us is to find the justice within the creative process and demand it of the larger world.