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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Number 285: December 2020

Readings in Nonviolence features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome). 

Art and peace series

Touching on textiles - An interview with Roberta Bacic

By Rob Fairmichael and Stefania Gualberti

Roberta Bacic is a Chilean Human Rights advocate and researcher living in Northern Ireland and curator of Conflict Textiles. Since 2007 she has curated more than 150 international exhibitions of arpilleras (three-dimensional appliquéd wall hangings that originated in Chile), and associated events in museums, universities, art galleries, embassies and community spaces worldwide. Over time, these exhibitions have expanded from Chilean arpilleras focused on the Pinochet dictatorship, to include quilts and other textile narratives of loss, resistance, testimony, protest and healing from around the world. The use of textile language in contested spaces has been at the centre of her curatorial work.
Her work can be accessed here an associated site of CAIN, Ulster University, which holds and documents her Conflict Textiles collection. The material collection currently comprises 371 documented textiles. Roberta has been involved with INNATE for many years.

Background and context

Rob - How did your background and experiences lead to involvement with arpilleras and textiles? And how does both that experience and your political and philosophical views influence your work in this field?

Roberta - It's been a natural development of several strands: my ethical stance, political views, academic background, and my deepest conviction that life is there to reach out to, and engage with, the essence of human beings. Having studied philosophy and worked in teaching and research, these disciplines have helped me to order methodologically and understand social research, field research and humanity. At the same time I have always found it easy and valuable to relate to and communicate informally with ordinary people and I know that the best communication is when you are equal with the other. So knowledge is only useful if you engage and share it with people in a way to which they can relate, not to possess it for your own benefit.

I felt that the ordinary language wasn't always adequate to reach out to people and to connect to something that mattered to them. Quite often when you speak you inhibit people. You give a discourse; you describe; you give half digested ideas; you don't trust. If you give a certain amount of information, people are capable of bringing out a lot from themselves.

With a piece of cloth, you need all the senses. All the senses are alive, if you have a scrap of old material. It has a smell; it has a touch; it has a colour; and it evokes memories or denial. All together it gives you a very comprehensive picture, but on the other hand requires us to engage with the other and bring out a response from the other.

Rob -There's one thing I want to go back to, which, in a sense is obvious, but it needs to be brought out here. Your Chilean background led to your familiarity with the arpillera art form from the time of the Pinochet dictatorship; you were well placed then to build on that.

Roberta - It’s true the arpilleras are very Chilean; they were made at the beginning by the wives, the daughters, the relatives and comrades of the detained-disappeared. It was a picture created by them. But looking back into my own past, I come from a family who produced silk at the beginning of the last century, so textile material has been something ingrained in the family. The fact of being aware of the value of textiles has been there from previous generations.

There are two functions in life that are vital. One is to dress yourself every day. When you have a baby you put on a nappy, you dress your baby, you cover the baby. The other is through food. I've never been much interested in food, so I have worked more with the materiality of the textile, because the textile stays; the textile has a story and it prevails. It prevails over time.

In the last few weeks I have exhibited in a former Italian concentration camp in former Yugoslavia. There are textile objects produced during internment there. People in the worst conditions produce textiles, but also preserve textiles that they had and they cherished. So that is a very important element to take into account.

And if you think of the concentration camps, where the people who were arrested and abducted were required to wear garments, that, instead of protecting them, offended them because it's the only thing they had on their body and they couldn't take it off. And I find it quite harrowing to speak about ‘pyjamas’ because it wasn't pyjamas. It's almost humiliating; the people in the concentration camp did not even have clothes, so how can you tell them that they had pyjamas on.

The textile element has always been used on the one hand to comfort and on the other hand to humiliate. If you think about bandages, they are used to protect your wound, but they are also used to cover your eyes when you are tortured. So the textile element is present in every single act of human behaviour.

Art and communication

Stefania – You could say that arpilleras are both art and craft. How do you think of these categories?

I wouldn't use those categories because I would say arpilleras are textiles, a form of communication, and when you categorise, immediately you enter into a debate. So why do we have to debate the difference between art and craft? Is it because craft is manual and it's more ordinary?

What do we understand? I think one of the things that we have achieved in the last 10 years through our collection is to display arpilleras as objects of value in their own right. You could say they are a piece of art because they have gone to the Victoria and Albert Museum, but it's not because of that. It's art because they touch humanity; when the events of life are tackled very directly, intimate things become very obvious.

You need the directness of what has happened. So the art of this communication comes through the capacity of transforming a difficult, painful, heroic experience into something it is possible to communicate and possible to bear. When you see a photo of bleeding people, you are paralysed at that time and you feel sorry. You can't feel empowerment. You feel you want to do something or you feel paralysed in front of these pieces. You almost feel the obligation to respond. And what the arpilleras do - and that's the most artful way of looking at them - is that they bring out in the viewer a need to react, to empathise. It's very difficult to look at one, and not to have a certain kind of communication.

It's also because the tough element, or the difficult element that you see, is put in the context of positive things. So if you are claiming that you have a disappeared relative, you show that you are together with other women. So you provide a breathing space to look at what it means to be a relative of a disappeared or a friend of the disappeared, but you also look at all those women together and you wish you could have a group of people with whom you would do things together. You almost feel part of this unity. You see that they have so much pain and yet they have the capacity to be with their friends there and see the police car and keep going.

So there is that element of bringing out, asking for a response, and asking for action and not for pity. I think they are quite subversive in that way. They don't invoke pity, they invoke admiration. They invoke empowerment and they involve you; sometimes you almost feel small. What have I done in front of so much pain in the world, when these women, who are so battered by life, could do what they did? So they challenge you very deeply. And that is something that I find very powerful.

Rob – Arpilleras deal primarily with ordinary life, violence and human rights abuses. What is it about them that makes them suitable for expressing and exploring these themes? One of the things that strikes me is that it is a means of expression which is very available to people and particularly to women, who have the skills and training that might be needed in terms of producing an arpillera or a textile. There can be a sense of empowerment in producing them as well as viewing them.

Roberta - They really cover experiences that transcend the practical and the metaphysical. The women and the men who made them, and the women and men who commercialised them and brought them out of the country, had the vision that potentially they were a means of passing on information. They were able, in a visionary way, to see that an arpillera could replace many words, because it was not going to contest one version of the history with the other. It was going to depict the full version of a lived experience. Nobody can invent that unless they have experienced it.

There were groups of women that worked together and the ones who are still alive are still together and are still engaging with their narratives of events that happened, but also are engaging in new events of ordinary life. So, the uprising that started on the 18th October 2019 in Chile has been fully documented through arpilleras. My collection already has two or three arpilleras of those events, and one is made by a woman who is now 72 years old and had documented the disappearance of her father.

It becomes a more sophisticated language. But one thing I wanted to clarify; you don’t need much skill to produce an arpillera. Some of the most powerful arpilleras were produced by women who barely knew how to sew. They were really being assertive and using time to reflect, time to design and time to process internally. I call it a bank of time, because an arpillera contains all those times - the internal time, the time of the experience and the time of elaborating the experience. And then it has all the time when it confronts the public and the time it lives in an archive. So all of that makes it also possible to be read and decoded in different times.

One of my good friends who was a Chilean consul says they are ambassadors because on the one hand, the Chilean arpilleras tell the story, the recent story of our country, because 40/50 years is recent. But on the other hand, they have the capacity of transnationally communicating and bringing out other narratives. When I asked him, “what is a good ambassador?” he said, “an ambassador is the person who can bring the culture of his country to the country where he works, but can also make an impact in the other culture”. And that's why I say that most of the arpilleras I've worked on and developed, have a transnational element. Now we also have 23 arpilleras made in Northern Ireland and some of them really are very graphic on the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Please do not confuse the term ‘transnational’ with “international”. That is a term that’s quite inadequate because it's very much connected to globalisation and standardisation. I have had a seminar and workshop in Zimbabwe; the response from Zimbabwe was the narrative from Zimbabwe. So it transcends to the other, it goes to the other and brings out something of the other. It is not cloning, not repeating and not having what we call standard elements – ‘do this, take this’.

Dealing with trauma and healing

Stefania - Dealing with the past may only be part of it, but how do you think the process of working with fabric, alone or in a group, can help healing trauma, at both an individual and collective level?

Roberta - Well, it's not a question that I like to approach because I'm not a psychologist or therapist. How can we speak of healing in absolutely sick societies? Many people can find solace in what they call the community; healing by being in community; by feeling that what happened to a person/group was not addressed to them because they were a bad person. Most of the ordinary people who have suffered, need to feel part of a community and they may need support to connect to a community. And many need work; that's the therapy they need.

I cannot offer healing. I can only promise a space to tell a story. Many of the things we do have a soothing capacity, and makes you feel that, at least, you are the owner of your own story, that you have done something for yourself, that you are in control and that you have not been left to be defeated. The healing element comes more from the possibility of expressing your story, not being interpreted in clinical terms, being able to say and feel that it happened to me because it's a sick society that has acted against its own people.

I think we have to create our own spaces and I sometimes find it very patronising to offer healing because that puts us in a position of being above the other. We should always be at an equal level because we're all part of this sick society. We sometimes have privileges and the only way we can be in solidarity, is by feeling equal to the other.

Being positive

Rob - Some arpilleras and textiles also contain positive visions. Can they suggest ways forward on the issues they cover? And in what way?

Roberta - I think all of them have positive messages. It depends on how you peel the onion because you have layers and layers of meaning. Most of them show the positive element that people have managed to start depicting an experience and have come to an end. Textile pieces demonstrate the capacity to conclude a piece of work, and this is something extremely positive.

They have a positive impact because they show us that in every moment of life, you have an option. There is always an option, maybe not what you wish, but what you can do at this time and in this context. If you see that women in conditions of repression were capable of protesting to the police, then why don't we go and do it for the refugees? You see, that is a positive reaction, even though the image might not be very nice.

They have been used as testimonies. They have been taken as memory pieces. They have been taken as pieces of resistance, but they have also been taken as pieces representing community life. And I think that in itself demonstrates their capacity to show a bigger picture and it is up to the one who views it to decipher that bigger picture. Our archive has the privilege of being able to record the underlying narratives. Every week we add additional information from new sources.

We have been able to bring arpilleras to all kinds of spaces, where they are being taken seriously. With our partners we have analysed and have seen the gap or the space for a new way to document and represent voices that had not been heard. As a result we have now gained one permanent space at the Ulster Museum in the exhibition The Troubles and Beyond. We also now have wall space in the Magee library, in Derry where I change the arpilleras every six months.

Stefania – So many negative forces, including militarism and rampant capitalism, are organised and work on an international and global basis. How do you feel Conflict Textiles fits into an alternative vision for our world? Can arpilleras connect people at a local and global level and show our interdependence?

Roberta - I don't know if it's an alternative. It's a perspective; it's a way of life. I don't have any expectations that we have any capacity to change the world, but we have the capacity to live in a different way and to be a witness by the way we live and the way we act. In a system where they want us all to feel absolutely afraid, disempowered and sad and incapable of reacting, the arpilleras show us that it's not necessary.

And if you don't have the big objective of dealing with the beast, you can empower yourself to live a good life in spite of the horrible things that are happening around you. I think it's also about the goal you set yourself. I don't think that any goal that's ‘anti-’ will ever be a goal that has the potential to succeed because you have to look at the things that you can do. You can't be ‘anti’. You have to be ‘pro’. If you are pro you have something that moves you forward. Can I stand in front of a tank? I can make a gesture, a testimonial. But the tank, I know, is stronger than me. So, for me, life is too important to think that I will change the system.


Rob - You've touched on the fact that basically anybody can make arpilleras or be involved in producing textiles. But the fact is that most arpilleras and textiles are made primarily by women because of the skills they have. Could you talk more generally about the area of gender in relation to this work?

Roberta - It's almost tedious because I always get that comment. But in reality the women who made their first arpilleras, made them not because they were women, but because their men had been abducted. It was a matter of survival. They were the only ones left. So it has been gendered, but it is not that the women came together because they had the skills. They came together because it's what they could do. They spoke out because that was an option.

The first workshops that were given at the Taller de la Vicaría de la Solidaridad (Vicarage Solidarity Workshop) were for the women who were waiting for the lawyers to interview them, and they didn't know what to do with their hands. They were so nervous and they were given a needle and they started to sew. It was also something that they could take home and continue doing at home while feeding the children and feeding the dog and going to the prison to see their husband. And they had no jobs because you wouldn't get a job as the wife of a disappeared. Although we have mainly women who have made them, we have in the collection a few pieces made by men.

I would say it's also cultural. In our Western culture we have this gendered aspect, where it’s mainly women who sew. But in Nigeria, it's the men who embroider. Not so far back in our own history, my partner’s grandfather was a hand-loom weaver. He was a man. On the other hand, the work of the arpilleristas was facilitated quietly by many men who transported them and created the networks. I would not be half the way to where I am, if I didn't have three men at my back supporting the whole work because they also believe in the arpilleras and the power they have.


Stefania - So, Roberta, you thought you were coming to Northern Ireland for retirement or semi-retirement, but you have never been working so hard. You have curated exhibitions on every continent except Antarctica. Why has this work taken off? And can you say it has become a more common art form?

Roberta - Well, I will say two things. First, I don't think that what I do is work, it is a way of living. It's a form of expressing. I don't believe in a life of retirement in which you sit down and stop being active. I think retirement is a time of life when you can put into practice all that you have experienced in life and also do things you couldn't do before. And it's absolutely liberating not to have to be filling out all the forms that the systems are imposing on us.

So it has absorbed my life, but it has also made me open to life because I have been able to interweave my personal life to my passion. And I have had the possibility of meeting incredible people. And reconnecting with people I haven't seen in more than 30 years, and when I embrace them, it's like we had seen each other last year. I feel that the values that brought us together 35 years ago in Chile are the same values we have today.

Rob - And it has become a more common art form internationally.

Roberta - Yes, it has become so, in a modest way. From the start, a lot has been done with our collection because of its ample reach. As you say, it has gone to so many places, but because of the archive it has an even broader reach. It's not a website that attracts millions of people, but it attracts hundreds of researchers. Every month, we have at least 10 to 12 people who stay many hours on the website; people who are researching or studying. We receive queries from very prominent museums that ask us for verification of the provenance of a piece that they have, whether it is an arpillera from Chile or Peru, because they inherited it and they have no reference. So we have become quite a professional entity that is considered reliable because of the amount of information we have and because of our visibility.

I have always believed that you work with the younger generation and you pass on knowledge to help them follow their own path. Yesterday I received an article that's fascinating. It’s by a woman I have never met and I have never seen. I didn't know her by name but she has used books that I referred to in my articles, she has referred to the CAIN website and to a piece of work I did 15 years ago with a student in Catalonia.

So you see that you don't need to be everywhere, but you need to reach out and give what you know to others and don't accumulate for yourself, because nothing belongs to you. You came naked to the world and you go naked. The only responsibility you have is to pass it on.

Highlights of working with arpilleras

Rob - Great, great answer. Our two remaining questions are to bring things together. If you were to talk about one or two textiles or arpilleras which stand out as particularly meaningful to you, what are the ones that that you would choose?

Roberta - It's so difficult because at different moments there have been different pieces. For me the pieces that always mean the most to me are like the ones that show women together in front of the Palace of Justice demanding to know “¿Dónde están los desaparecidos? / Where are the "disappeared"?” . The pose this simple question in front of the brutality. They are not pointing at the other. They are just asking a question.

But there are another couple of pieces that I absolutely love and one is called “Vamos a la playa en micro / Let's go to the beach by bus”. It is extremely sweet. You look at it and see that it's made with very primitive material. And the woman had not sewn before, because she had to use materials that had a couple of stitches to suggest mountains, because she didn't know how to make mountains. But it's very special to me because it evokes a bus going to the beach; how the people, the poor people, would have gone for one day to the beach on a Sunday, and that was their holiday. That piece is from 1975. Imagine the number of years ago. The backing is a number of patches sewn together; she didn't even have a complete piece of material. And last year, in 2019, after I gave a talk at a seminar in Chile, a woman approached me and asked: “Do you know how moving it was to see that piece? The woman who made it brings back memories to me; it's not a happy arpillera”.

I decided not to say anything because if you are a good researcher, you just shut up. You let the other speak. You don't guide and look for the answer you want. So I said, “Beautiful, you know more about this piece?”. “Yes”, she said, “we were in a workshop in which all of us had at least one member of our family disappeared and the facilitator encouraged us to keep going, be strong. She asked us to think of a beautiful moment with our absent ones, and then focus on it, to keep you going”. So the piece called “Let's go to the beach by bus” is evoking a happy moment to keep the woman going in her search.

Stefy, you were at the launch of the exhibition “Following the footsteps of the disappeared”, when we featured another piece made by my Peruvian friend Guadalupe, who disappeared. Her son and Rainer Huhle spoke about her. It's so moving because she made it with the remnants of the dresses of my daughters’ dolls. I gave her those materials. It doesn't belong to the collection, because my granddaughter had chosen it to be the piece that she would inherit. But when we were preparing for the launch, Guadalupe’s son said he didn't have any of her arpilleras, and so we have decided that we will donate the piece to the museum that they are building in Peru to remember the disappeared from the area. So imagine how much you love it that you can let it go. If you love it, you want it to be in the place where it should be. You don't want to appropriate it. So I felt we must love it so much that we can let it go.

Stefania - it must have been an amazing journey to have been involved in this work over the recent decades, especially in terms of the interaction you have had with people in workshops in different parts of the world. Without sharing any confidences, can you share one or two experience that stand out from this?

Roberta - Well, I think every experience is in itself very intense and very strong. Maybe one that stands out for me is the experience I had last year, when I was back running a workshop in the South of Chile, and being with some of the women I have never met but who made arpilleras in my collection. I had received arpillera donations from people in Germany and Switzerland made by these women or in their workshop, but I didn't know them. I took care to bring them with me to Chile and some women had not seen their piece since they made it in 1978. They realised that the pieces that I had were in better condition than any piece that they had themselves. The arpilleras that I have have been extremely well treated because I have cared for them like anything I love. I make enemies because I look after them so much, but I think that they are pieces of history that have to be preserved, not because they are dead pieces in museums, but because they are living pieces in museums.

And maybe another incredible experience was this year to be able to present at the Tate Modern (“Chile 1973”) and to speak of the pieces as real testimonials that could bring into other cultures a certain sense of tangibility, of what the process of the dictatorship was. I was invited to give a talk and I wrote for 10 days on three different themes. I went with one student who helped to show the pieces. In the end I went totally off script. I tore up the script when I went in and I just spoke.

But the most relevant thing was that at the end we viewed a film, very classical, called The Battle of Chile, by Patricio Guzman that anybody can watch as it's a wonderful, historical film. The movie, the music and the textiles came together like a choir. It was a total marvellous sensation where the Tate had brought it all together.

Rob – There have been some fascinating views and information that you have shared, thank you very much Roberta.

Stefania – Thank you.

Copyright INNATE 2019