Lorna Dillon on… arpilleras and the politics of textiles

Co-curator Lorna Dillion is a Research Fellow in Latin American Art at Murray Edwards College. For the exhibition What Lies Beneath – Women, Politics, Textiles, she worked closely with needlework collectives (tejedoras) from Colombia and Chile to bring their work to a UK audience. Suzanna Petot finds out more about how Latin American textiles illuminate key themes in the exhibition – from collective making to political engagement all mediated through embroidery, patchwork, and appliqué…

SP: What was your experience co-curating this exhibition with the Women’s Art Collection? What drew you to the project?

LD: I was thrilled when Naomi Polonsky invited me to be a guest curator on an exhibition of textile art that she was planning for the Women’s Art Collection (formally known as the New Hall Art Collection). I had been working closely with textile artists in the Americas and this felt like an important opportunity to bring their work into dialogue with fibre art by European and African artists.  

SP: Can you tell us more about yourself and your work/research? Why did you become interested in Latin American visual art?

LD: I have always loved art and history of art. I still remember the moment I was introduced to history of art in secondary school. I am a Latin Americanist with a particular interest in Chile. I have taught a wide variety of historical, literary and cultural modules in Latin American studies, but over the years I’ve become more and more focused on Latin American visual culture and comparative aesthetics. My first book was on Violeta Parra´s sculptures, paintings and embroideries. When I started working on Parra, few people knew about her work in the visual arts. I had studied Parra as part of a course at King’s College London, led by Catherine Boyle. In the course we focused mostly on Parra’s poetry and music. Parra was best known as a protest singer from the 1960s however she also created incredible work, which was exhibited in the Musee d’arts decoratifs in Paris in 1964. I felt that the story of Parra’s art needed to be told. Over the years, Parra’s art has become much better known and three of her embroideries were included in the Venice Biennale this year. It was through this work on Parra’s embroideries (known as arpilleras) that I became interested in arpilleras more broadly. I continue to work on Parra´s art and am now co-writing a new book on Violeta Parra´s legacy. My interest in Latin American art led me to do a course on curating organised by Tate and King’s College London. The interest in curating – and in particular, curating a transnational history of art, was one of the things that drew me to co-curate What Lies Beneath.

Image credit: Constanza @ Flickr

SP: Not many people in the UK know about Latin American textile traditions, especially Chilean arpillera. It was amazing to see Francisca Aninat’s work in relation to Memorarte’s piece. Can you tell us more about these two arpilleras and how it has been introducing this traditional textile form to new audiences?

LD: When people think of Chilean arpilleras, they tend to think of the small works of appliqué that were created while the country was living under a dictatorship. These original arpilleras were a kind of mail art. They were exported by religious organisations and sold overseas by the Chilean exile community and other people working in solidarity with the Chilean people. Arpilleras are receiving increased attention and I think that the acquisition of a collection of original arpilleras from the 1970s and 1980s by the Tate Modern has helped to underscore the importance of this tradition. Aninat’s work responds to the arpilleras of the 1970s and 1980s in interesting ways. The incorporation of fragments of newspaper draws attention to the way this artform has been used to tell news stories about human rights violations. At first, I felt uneasy with the harsh unfinished aesthetic that Aninat chose – her use of stitching recalls the work of Doris Salcedo, but it does not really recall the aesthetically pleasing stitching, or the vibrant and colourful compositions of the arpilleras created under the dictatorship. I think it works very well in dialogue with the large banner arpillera by Memorarte and through the process of curating the exhibition I´ve really come to appreciate Aninat´s work.

The Memorarte piece was very different. I was determined that the work of Memorarte must be included in this exhibition. There is an effervescent arpillera movement in Chile today, which is strongly associated with the feminist movement, and Memorarte are the most important art collective in this current-day movement. Fortunately, I had been awarded a British Academy grant to hold a conference on art and peace building, so were able to invite Erika Silva, one of the directors of Memorarte to speak to the public. There was a huge amount of interest in the current day arpilleras that Erika brought to our Latin American art festival and which I’m writing about in my book provisionally entitled the book Textile Art in Abya Yala.  

Installation view: Francisca Aninat @francisca_aninat and Memorarte @memorarte

SP: What was your experience working with the two collectives and how did you come across their work?

LD: Memorarte have been an absolute joy to work with. My communication has been with Erika Silva and we work primarily through voice messages. It is always a joy to get a message from Erika. The process of looking at their work and selecting a piece has been incredibly enriching and it has helped my research. I would love to write a book on arpilleras with Silva. Memorarte are always trying to keep up with the demand for their pieces. I admire the Memorarte are constantly trying to highlight important issues and it was difficult to know which of their large banner arpilleras to choose. 

Working with Juana Alicia Ruíz Hernandez of the Tejedoras de Mampujan has also been rewarding. Originally, we had hoped to borrow one of the pieces that is in the collection of the Colombian National Museum, but the transportation was going to be too costly as the art handlers wanted to use large wooden boxes to ship the textiles. Juana was really helpful, and we were excited to be able to show ‘Mujer pariendo en el arbol’, which is the most colourful, but also the most political and most moving of the pieces in the exhibition in my opinion. Through my collaboration with Juana, I´ve become particularly interested in the most recent body of work by the Tejedoras de Mampuján, which explores their afrodescendant history, including the history of slavery. Juana came to the UK this summer and brought some of the more recent works of art by the group. Some of it has sold but I still have a few items in my house. If anyone is interested in buying a work of art by Memorarte or the Tejedoras de Mampuján, they could get in touch with me, and I can connect them with the artists. I will have some artwork by the Tejedoras de Mamujan in Cambridge until early September, when I will return it along with the artwork that is in the exhibition. 

SP: Art and politics seem to be especially tied when it comes to Latin American art, and often seem to communicate a collective voice as opposed to a singular perspective. Why do you think this is?

LD: It is true that there is far more emphasis on collective creation in Latin America than there is here. Art is seen as a practice that is open to everyone, rather than something that an individual does if they are talented. I think people in the UK are reluctant to pursue creative pursuits if they don´t feel skilled at them. This has political roots. 

Installation view: Enam Gbewonyo @enamgd and Nengi Omuku @nengiomuku,

SP: Why do you think that people should come see this exhibition? And if people want to learn more about the Chilean and Colombian artists in the exhibition, where should they look?

The star of the show is the painted textile by Nengi Omuku, so I would encourage people to take this opportunity to come and see one of Omuku´s works. It is a powerful image with a lot of movement and a kind of violence, that emanates from the fiery colours and the way she seems to show entangled bodies from above. Her use of fabric seems to catalyse a new way of generating meaning, and for me, the human figures, as incomplete, hybrid forms, are suggestive of an interesting strand of Afro-surrealism. 

People seem to be inspired by seeing all these heterogeneous works of textile art exhibited together. I put that down mostly to Naomi´s eye for detail. People should also come for the emotional experiences that the textiles generate and of course to immerse themselves in the wonderful surroundings of Murray Edwards College and the Women´s Art Collection more broadly. The exhibition is in a bright corridor and the play of light along with the textiles contributes to the experience of affect. Textiles are tactile, and you can practically taste the layers of touch and memory that textiles evoke. 

Laura Mosely has put together a reading list for people interested in textiles generally. If people would like to learn more about the Chilean and Colombian artists in the exhibition, they could look at my website Threads of Unity and of course in my forthcoming book Threads of Unity, which is on textile art in Latin America.