Chilean Arpilleras: The Power of Anonymity

Arpilleras, produced in Chile between 1974-1989, are artworks made from appliqué or embroidery on a background of sackcloth that tell stories about one of the darkest times in Chilean history;  the military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990. The regime’s political policies led to economic inequality, a crisis of healthcare, and mass torture and executions for those who opposed the government.

This truth telling drove the arpillera makers, two groups of women, to create. On one hand they were mothers and grandmothers of the people seized by the secret police and rarely heard of again. The church office was the only place which offered help in their  search for information, and there they met others in the same situation, gradually forming into a protest group, the Families of the Disappeared. The second group of women were shanty town dwellers whose families’ faced starvation due to massive unemployment. The church assisted them in setting up laundries, soup kitchens, and…art workshops. These arpilleristas were transformed into artist activists finding relief and comfort from working together, a kind of art therapy. And the church, in the middle, between despair and resistance, facilitated this healing through creativity. 

What strikes me about these pieces is that the work is anonymous. No one takes credit, it’s too dangerous to do so. Usually the women in the group make one patchwork each week. The themes are decided by discussion and the finished pieces are then looked over and analyzed to confirm they are well made and really “say something.”  Since the Chilean government considered them a threat and forbade them to be shown or sold in the country, the earliest arpilleras were smuggled out in diplomatic pouches. The meaning of each arpillera, sometimes containing hidden messages, was important to them for this reason and remaining nameless gave their message power. The strength of their collective voice depended on it.

These patchwork pieces which have seemingly innocent, child-like qualities – colorful, playful – harnessed the power of anonymity in the collective, tapped into the practical role of the church as a community ally, and were a tool of resistance and healing against government oppression. During these uncertain times this kind of nameless, collective art making offers us the same power and hope.