Folk art? Historical records? Messages of protest? Chilean arpilleras [burlap] are all of these. The brightly colored patchwork pictures stitched onto sacking are chronicles of the life of the poor and oppressed during the totalitarian military regime of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte (1973-1990).
Arpilleras served to document and denounce oppression in a country where all normal channels of free expression were closed. Poor women and women whose husbands, sons, or brothers were killed or imprisoned by the government met each week around crowded tables in one-room workshops on the outskirts of Santiago, where they shared their burdens and stitched small but meaningful tapestries. Their handwork told of their hunger, fear, unemployment, housing shortages, and the missing, who are still referred to in Chile as los desaparecidos [the disappeared] and los detenidos [the detained].
Once each month, the new arpilleras were collected from each workshop and taken to the Vicaría de la Solidaridad [Vicariate of Solidarity], an ecumenical human rights group of the Catholic Church in Santiago that distributed them internationally. Since the Chilean government considered them traitorous and forbid them to be shown or sold in the country, the earliest arpilleras were smuggled out in diplomatic pouches. Packages and suitcases suspected of containing them were confiscated.
To protect the women, who were known as arpilleristas, their tapestries were generally unsigned, though the Vicaría turned over to them all the profits they received from selling the works abroad. Often, this money was the only income the women had.
Arpilleras have many common elements. Bits of fabric are cut in the shapes of houses, trees, or objects and are stitched to the backing. Figures of people are almost always three-dimensional, with little rolled arms, heads and bodies coming out of a flat background. Sticks, bits of foil, plastic, or paper, dried beans, and other commonly found materials are frequently sewn or glued onto the tapestries. Simple decorative topstitching fills in the details. Each arpillera is bordered by a colorful fabric binding, blanket stitch, or crocheted wool edging. Older women with failing eyesight helped by stuffing the heads for the figures and crocheting the borders.
In 1988 The Benton’s Education Department purchased fifty arpilleras from the Vicaría for the Education Collection. It is considered one of the most significant collections of arpilleras in the United States