LONG BEACH, Calif. — Memory slips between our fingers, settling somewhere between fact and fiction. However, the fearless resistance conveyed through the arpilleras — small traditional quilts sewn upon burlap — on display at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) does not leave the memories of Chile’s brutal military dictatorship (1973–1990) up for interpretation. Curated by MOLAA’s director of education, Gabriela Martínez, Arte, Mujer y Memoria: Arpilleras from Chile features 30 arpilleras, by mostly anonymous female artists, that depict the cruelty of Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship.
On September 11, 1973 Chile’s democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, was overthrown by CIA-backed Chilean armed forces, prompting almost two decades of political persecution under the rule of Augusto Pinochet, who held the presidency until 1990 and oversaw the military until 1998. Alleging economic crisis and social unrest, Pinochet’s newly instated military government set about undoing social programs, suspending the constitution, and enforcing violence against Chilean citizens deemed disloyal. Under Pinochet, men with long hair were shaved in public. Books considered antagonistic to the Pinochet regime were forbidden. Hunger in the general population reached 60%. More than 3,000 Chileans “disappeared” in clandestine ways, and tens of thousands more were abducted and tortured.
The women left behind — many of them mothers of those murdered — came together to demand justice through both protest and art-making. Chilean author Marjorie Augosín maintains that these women often found and recognized each other while searching for their loved ones in hospitals and morgues. Common Thread (2019), a documentary by Anthony Rauld featured in Arte, Mujer y Memoria, informs viewers that on the second day of the new military takeover, women started organizing movements to resist. One of those movements was the establishment of arpillera workshops. The arpilleras narrated the course of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship through bold colors, broad stitching, and striking imagery, often incorporating fabrics from their disappeared children’s clothes.
As the majority of disappeared people were men, women began looking for alternative modes of income. Beginning in March 1974, the Chilean Catholic Church, which opposed the Pinochet regime, provided materials and meeting space to the arpilleristas, as well as avenues to sell their works internationally. Pinochet later denounced the arpilleras, forcing the women to work in secret. According to the organization Forging Memory, the church smuggled the arpilleras out of the country once their production became illegal, using special diplomatic pouches that the government troops and police could not touch. By the late 1970s, the arpilleras had become a major industry.
Arte, Mujer y Memoria is organized as a timeline of political oppression, starting with the privatization of basic amenities to the disappearance of thousands of assumed Leftist sympathizers. The artworks often depict scenes of political participation, mirroring the arpilleristas’ activism and placing the viewer amid street protests and meetings around kitchen tables. The arpilleras oscillate between utopian visions of the past, such as “Remembering Allende,” which evokes peaceful times before Pinochet, and dystopian images, including one of Chile’s presidential palace up in flames entitled “The Bombing of La Moneda” (1973). Other works are more somber, haunted by a sense of loss that had become quotidian. “Question Mark at the Dinner Table” conveys the disquieting absence of a loved one through an empty seat at the table. “They Dance Alone” (1979) underscores the impact of death on cultural traditions as Chilean women dance La Cueca, Chile’s national dance, without their male counterparts.
The development of this exhibition was in and of itself an act of female solidarity. The arpilleristas’ movement crossed continents when MEMCH-LA (Movement for the Emancipation of the Chilean Woman-Los Angeles) — an organization of female exiles that aims to amplify the voices of Chilean women — began to gather the artworks. Its mother organization, MEMCH, is the oldest women’s group in Chile. By collecting, displaying, and distributing arpilleras, MEMCH-LA has shed light on a cause invalidated by the Chilean government and rendered invisible in the United States. The arpilleras became a means of disseminating information about and supporting the arpilleristas’ resistance to dictatorship, strengthening the enduring bond between Chilean women activists and their diasporic counterparts. In addition to lending the works in Arte, Mujer y Memoria, in 2018 MEMCH-LA donated 49 arpilleras to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile, returning this history to its national context.
Como Alitas de Chincol (Like Winged Little Birds, 2002) by Vivienne Barry, an animated film in the exhibition, is dedicated to “the women who embroidered history.” The arpilleristas of Chile stitched political opposition into being, wielding the arts to subvert state censorship and push back against state violence. Through art-making and activism, they found a way to resist, remember, and mourn.
Arte, Mujer y Memoria: Arpilleras from Chile continues at the Museum of Latin American Art (628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, California) through March 29. The exhibition was curated by Gabriela Martínez, MOLAA’s Director of Education.