The power of the word has fueled many protests, but Chilean women used their sewing needles, thread, and scraps of cloth to raise an international awareness of the plight of their loved ones -- murdered, missing, and tortured under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
Case Western Reserve University's Mather Gallery will present a rare showing of the women's protest tapestries during an exhibition, "Threads of Hope: Chilean Arpilleras," from September 12 to October 3. A special reception will take place at 5 p.m. Friday, September 12 with a dance performance at 6 p.m. The free exhibit is co-sponsored by the Flora Stone Mather Alumnae Association, the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, and the College of Arts and Sciences.
The exhibit will showcase 40 arpilleras from the private collection of Chilean author Marjorie Agosin, who is the special curator for the exhibit and guest speaker at the opening.
Arpilleras were handcrafted, using scraps of materials collected by women or donated by the churches in Chile. The women often represent themselves in bold hues, to show their strength, optimism, and hope against the blacked-out figures of the soldiers or the missing family members. Determination and dignity are shown in strong lines and the simple stitches of the women's faces.
Although the organized efforts of the women were not intended to be works of art, they have served to record events and the horror in the daily lives of their creators.
Recurring in the arpilleras are elements such as the photos, images, and names of the missing and sewn words and expressions such as "Where are they?" The tapestries often have a "relief" quality and are far from two-dimensional pictures. The scrap material and stitching that ultimately create the bold lines and forms allows the viewer to perceive the determination and boldness in these Chilean women.
Agosin has written about the arpilleras in the illustrated history of the movement, Threads of Hope, Threads of Love. Isabel Allende, the author of House of Spirits and niece of Salvador Allende, who was ousted from power by the Pinochet coup (1973-89), wrote the foreword to the account of the arpillerista movement arose in protest against Pinochet.
During the opening reception, dancers from the CWRU community will perform a "Cueca Sola." This dance is a variation on the national Chilean dance, "La Cueca," by a man and woman in love, and danced solo or just by women to represent the missing loved one.
Throughout the exhibit, Mather Gallery will show the informative documentary on the development and evolution of the arpillerista movement, Threads of Hope, produced by Films for the Humanities and narrated by Donald Sutherland.
Jacqueline C. Nanfito, CWRU assistant professor of Spanish in the College of Arts and Sciences, organized the exhibit. She has arranged a special lecture at 4 p.m. Thursday, September 11, in the Guilford House Parlor, where Agosin will talk about women, human rights, and the movement as well as read her poetry.
Nanfito said she wanted to give exposure to the powerful messages that the Chilean women were unable to verbalize, given the harsh censorship and terrorism that characterized the dictatorship over the past two decades.
These arpilleras have served as "testimony to the tenacity and faith of these women in their determined struggle for truth and justice, and to break the code of silence imposed upon them," she added.
"In the face of oppression and absolute censorship during the dictatorship, these courageous and creative women often met clandestinely to stitch their stories of pain and love with threads of hope onto remnants of fabric in order to save their common tales of torture and deceit from oblivion," said Nanfito.
Agosin writes about these turbulent Pinochet years, "Powerless to work either inside or outside of a system that refused to recognize them as a viable political force, (the women) had to create a political network that would survive and function within a system that allowed them to be only mothers and caretakers."
Some 10,000 individuals disappeared under Pinochet's dictatorship. Amnesty International estimates that over the past 20 years as many as 90,000 Latin Americans living under dictatorships shared similar fates with the lost Chileans.
Chilean women found refuge in the Vicariate of Solidarity organized by the Catholic Church of Rome. In darkened basements and other secret meeting rooms in churches, mothers, wives, daughters and sisters began to piece and sew together the stories of their suffering and received wages for their handicrafts, which enable women to feed their hungry families.
Agosin encountered women making the arpilleras and listened to the stories of their plights where questions to the government about the whereabouts of their loved ones remained unanswered.
The poet is a professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature at Wellesley College. She has been honored by Spain's Ministry of Culture and the North-South Center of the University of Miami with the Letras de Oro prize for poetry. This award is given to a writer of Hispanic heritage living in the United States. She also is the recipient of the 1995 Latino Literature Prize for Poetry from the Latin American Writers Institute for her book, Toward the Splendid City (Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilinque, 1994).
During Agosin's visit to Cleveland, Border's Book Store will host a book signing at 2 p.m. Saturday, September 13 at its La Place location, Richmond and Cedar Roads.
Mather Gallery is open noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information about the exhibit and related events, call Nanfito at 368-6947 or Mather Gallery at 368-2679.