- Unknown woman artist, Chile
- Cotton, linen, felt and wool on cotton, ink on paper and pin
- Object: 400 × 455 mm
- Presented by Guy Brett and Alejandra Altamirano 2018
This work is one of a group of textile works in Tate’s collection by unknown Chilean female artists (Tate T14998–T15017). Known as arpilleras, which literally means ‘burlap’ in Spanish, these historic patchworks represent a popular form of artistic expression and political resistance that emerged in Latin America in the twentieth century. They were created in the 1970s by women from Chile’s most economically underprivileged population. Generally the artists remained anonymous because of the political subject matter of their work.
These arpilleras depict scenes of daily life in shantytowns during the military regime of General Augusto Pinochet, who held power from 1973 to 1990. Despite their brightly coloured compositions, arpilleras often comment with unvarnished candour on government repression and kidnappings, lack of employment and everyday struggles for survival. In some cases, the artists used the clothing of disappeared family members to construct their imagery. In addition to clothes, some artists included non-fabric materials to enliven the scene and further establish its relationship to lived reality. These works were produced in workshops organised by the Catholic Church and sold abroad to raise awareness of living conditions under the dictatorship, and to provide a source of income for the families of disappeared citizens, political prisoners and members of impoverished communities. A number of the arpilleras address a range of topical themes that include welfare, education, employment and city life, while others feature inspirational aphorisms such as ‘Never surrender or stray from the path’. Several of these textiles also include pockets with notes written by the artist that describe the scene or relay a message.
Tate’s collection of twenty arpilleras was assembled by curator and writer Guy Brett and his wife Alejandra, whose father was a leader in President Salvador Allende’s government that was overthrown by Pinochet in 1973. The couple was deeply invested in finding ways to aid anti-authoritarian and humanitarian causes in Chile from abroad. They presented these arpilleras to Tate in 2018.
A number of the arpilleras also include typewritten notes in English that come from when they were included in Guy Brett’s exhibition We Want People to Know the Truth. Patchwork Pictures from Chile (Third Eye Centre, Glasgow and touring, 1977), the first exhibition of arpilleras in Britain.
Below is a description of each arpillera, identified by the descriptive summary provided by the Bretts. The titles are largely descriptive ones that have been assigned to the works for the purpose of identification, since few of the arpilleras would have been formally titled by their makers:
T14998 [Personal Development Workshop] depicts one of the educational workshops that the Catholic Church ran for impoverished citizens. The one in question focuses on marital relationships, and shows many hands raising to contribute to the discussion of ‘What I expect from my partner’ and ‘What my partner expects from me’, as written up on the wall.
T14999 [The children and the mother are crying…] presents in the foreground a woman crying and preventing her drunk husband from entering their home. Inside the building, their children are awake and crying in response to the violence threatening their household.
T15000 [Sexualida (Personal Development Workshop)] illustrates an educational workshop, focusing on sexuality (‘sexualidad’ in Spanish), a word that appears partially written on the blackboard portrayed in this arpillera. A note that accompanies the arpillera reads, in translation, ‘This patchwork represents our group when we received the theme of sexuality; for me it was a very hard moment because one never cares to address this issue and for me the moment when I discovered it was the most important one because I cried a lot when I realised that the most important fault in my marriage was sexual relationship. It is very relevant to learn about these issues because one learns to know one’s body and its parts by name.’
T15001 [Communal Meal] pictures a public canteen. A group of villagers sit at a large table waiting to be served their meal that is being heated. In the foreground, a line of women queue. They carry miniature plastic bags containing real grains of rice, lentils and dried pasta.
T15002 [Working in the field] depicts a rural area close to the mountains. Several workers tend a field surrounded by fencing. A woman waters her garden. Children play outside their houses and transport water. One of the houses presents a door that can be opened by the viewer.
T15003 [Neighbourhood] makes reference to the limited electricity provided to the shantytowns of Santiago. This arpillera presents many electric wires in front of the shanty buildings and three electrical poles marked with a red X, one of which is being climbed by a man with a ladder. Below him, another man stands by a car that reads ‘CHILECTR…’ which is likely the name of the privatised electrical company undertaking the works.
T15004 [Rainy Street] illustrates a rainy landscape where a group of women strolls through an avenue that divides a wealthy part of the city – indicated by multi-storey buildings – and a shantytown village. In the middle of the avenue a street seller advertises his merchandise. The scene is covered by an intermittent white thread representing a heavy rain.
T15005 [Nunca te entregues ni te apartes del camino] presents the revolutionary motto ‘Never surrender or stray from the path’. The arpillera illustrates this motto with a path leading to a shining sun followed by a group of five doves. On the back of this arpillera the sentence ‘No se vende’ (Not for sale) and the name Matta are written in black pen, indicating that the arpillera used to be owned by the Chilean painter Roberto Matta (1911–2002), who subsequently gave it to Guy Brett.
T15006 [Nosotros nos reunimos (We get together)] portrays a community meeting being interrupted by police. The meeting takes place in a building labelled ‘Comite Hirma 2’ (Hirma Comittee 2) that features a sign outside that reads, ‘Hoy reunion sobre problemas de agua y luz’ (Meeting today about the water and electricity problems). In the scene two policemen are holding batons and standing in front of the door of the ‘Comite’ building.
T15007 [Street scene] represents another shantytown scene. In the foreground a group of villagers queue to get water from a public water supplier and in the background women dry their clothes.
T15008 [A supermarket that also had to close its doors] displays a textile shop and a food market, each with very little stock and a line of people queuing. A note with the arpillera reads, ‘This is a central street where people line up to shop and there are no sales’. The arpillera includes a typewritten note pinned to the top left side that reads, ‘A supermarket that also had to close its doors. They were selling very little and went bankrupt.’
T15009 [Attempt at perspective] presents an aerial view of a street with a central pathway surrounded by humble houses on both sides. A typewritten note in English reads, ‘A street scene – and an attempt at perspective.’
T15010 [Taller de arpillera (Arpillera Workshop)] is a depiction of an arpillera-making workshop, such as those organised by the Catholic Church. Women sit at a big table, arranging scraps of fabric. The title Taller de arpillera (Arpillera workshop) is stitched above the scene, with a mountain range view – characteristic of the Chilean landscape – in the background.
T15011 [A Closed Factory] shows a group of people gathering outside three houses. The arpillera is accompanied by two notes: one handwritten note reads ‘industria cerrada’ (factory closed), and a note pinned to the top left side, typewritten in English, reads, ‘A closed factory. Men and women are left without work.’
T15012 [Three-storey houses] depicts a main road running diagonally from right to left. At both sides of the road, a three-storey house is depicted next to a humble one-storey shack. The arpillera has a note pinned to the top left side, typewritten in English that reads, ‘The three storey houses must denote those of well-to-do people. All the houses in the poblaciones are one storey only.’
T15013 [Female villager] differs from most of the arpilleras in this collection because of its portrait orientation and because it is made from burlap sack. It depicts the bustling life of the neighbourhood. A handwritten descriptive note pinned to the back reads, ‘2nd. Job of a female villager. Multiple workshops. Up, cat walking on the rooftop. Master working with ladder at hand. Female villagers with working sacks. The doors and windows of the different workshops open up with people behind them. Electricity posts and cables. Pallet truck to carry material.’
T15014 [Street scene] depicts a street scene but differs from most of the arpilleras in this collection because of its portrait orientation and by the fact that it appears to be signed by its maker, the name ‘Clara M.’ being embroidered name in the bottom right corner.
T15015 [Canteen] shows three women fetching water while men head towards a canteen. The arpillera is accompanied by two notes: one handwritten note kept in a pocket on the back of the cloth reads, ‘Poblacion y cantina. Aduana’ (Village and Canteen. Customs); and a typewritten note written in English and pinned to the top left side of the front that reads, ‘In the majority of the “poblaciones” the women have to go and get water at a common faucet. There is no safe supply of drinking water.’
T15016 [The factory is closed] illustrates a group of workers standing outside a factory. The arpillera has a note pinned to the top left side, typewritten in English, that reads, ‘The factory is closed. Men are unemployed.’
T15017 [The Doctors] shows a group of villagers, including an extremely thin woman, standing by a doorway. The arpillera is accompanied by a fragment of a handwritten note and a typed note pinned to the top left side, typewritten in English, that reads, ‘Two doctors go to visit the daughter of a woman suffering from an advanced state of malnutrition.’
Guy Brett, We Want People to Know the Truth. Patchwork Pictures from Chile, exhibition catalogue, Third Eye, Glasgow and touring 1977.
Guy Brett, Through Our Own Eyes: Popular Art and Modern History, London 1986.
Marjorie Agosin, Scraps of Life: Chilean Arpilleras, Chilean Women and the Pinochet Dictatorship, Toronto 1987.
Michael Wellen, Fiontán Moran, Alice Ongaro and Sol Polo
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