As part of a larger project called Forging Memory: Chilean Art and Politics, the exhibition Sewn in Protest showcases Chilean patchwork tapestries called arpilleras, which were among the earliest expressions of political protest during the brutal dictatorship that ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. On September 11, 1973, a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet—and secretly supported by the U.S. Nixon administration—overthrew Chile’s democratically elected socialist government. During the seventeen years that followed, the Pinochet regime abducted, tortured, and killed thousands of its perceived opponents. In response, Chilean women stitched patchwork tapestries that dramatically depict protest and repression, while also celebrating survival, community life, seasonal beauty, and the fruits of women’s labor. At the time, the arpilleristas connected to a growing national human rights movement that protested numerous state abuses and mobilized for the 1988 plebiscite that rejected the Pinochet dictatorship and set Chile on a path back to democracy.
Both exhibitions incorporate educational and cultural programs that deepen our understanding of the arpilleras as works of art and as symbols of the broader human rights movement. Presenters include Liliana Trevizán and Oscar Sarmiento, SUNY Potsdam professors who were university students and teachers in Chile during the dictatorship, and Chilean artist and educator Francisco Letelier, who is working with students to create a mural at SUNY Potsdam. Letelier’s father, the Chilean ambassador to the U.S. before the coup, was assassinated in Washington, D.C., by the Pinochet regime in 1976. They are joined by Katherine Hite, an expert on the politics of memory, as well as other scholars and musicians in celebration of the arpilleras.
Women produced arpilleras in workshops supported by the Vicaria de la Solidaridad, the human rights arm of the Roman Catholic Church in Santiago that offered legal protection and assistance. As women struggled to locate missing family members and to find food, they also created the visually striking arpilleras, a form of folk art made from cloth pieces stitched onto burlap to form intricate three-dimensional tapestries. The women sometimes used cloth from the clothing left behind by their abducted loved ones. Sale of the arpilleras provided income for these women, as well as for other working-class women who joined the workshops. The collection on display comes mostly from the working-class workshops operating towards the end of the dictatorship, depicting scenes of economic hardship, community survival, and political mobilization against the regime.
Jubilee Crafts, a Philadelphia fair-trade pioneer in the 1970s and 1980s staffed entirely by women, imported hundreds of arpilleras and marketed them nationwide to support the arpilleristas who made them. Arpilleras were also used to educate Americans about U.S. foreign policy toward Chile. The tapestries on display were provided by former Jubilee Crafts staff members. At the close of the exhibitions, the arpilleras will be returned to Chile and placed in the permanent collection of the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago.