In this week's episode, Alice interviews Roberta Bacic, a Chilean collector, curator and Human Rights advocate, about the ‘Conflict Textiles‘ collection which she oversees. In 2008, Roberta was involved as guest curator at an exhibition called ‘The Art of Survival’, hosted in Derry-Londonderry. The exhibition was focused on different women’s experiences of survival, and it was inspired in part by a Peruvian arpillera (a form of tapestry) which Roberta had brought to a meeting, to illustrate how women on both sides of the long-running conflict in Peru during the 1980s and 1990s represented their experiences and used the stories they had sewn as testimony at the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission. From there, the idea of curating a physical and digital collection of Conflict Textiles grew – and today the collection (based at Ulster University) comprises arpilleras, quilts and wall hangings from many different parts of the world, including Chile, Northern Ireland, Croatia, Colombia, Germany, India, Zimbabwe and Syria. These works of art not only depict conflict and its consequences. In many cases, they embody the resilience of the people who created them, and they can be read as acts of resistance too: fabric forms of storytelling that advocate for justice and promote alternatives to conflict.
In the podcast we discuss the origins of the arpillera tradition in Chile during the 1970s and its gradual 'diaspora' around the world as a medium of communication and protest, despite a ban on exports once Pinochet's regime began to understand the power of these 'conflict textiles'. Roberta reflects on their tactile dimension: made up of scraps of ordinary household cloth, they connect viewers to their makers and the stories they want tell in very tangible ways. Made mostly by women, they use domestic materials and techniques to make private griefs public and to amplify marginalised voices. Whether they are documenting events as they unfold or looking back on past conflicts, they play an important role in bearing witness to atrocities and in empowering victims to demand justice, both individually and collectively. Many of the Conflict Textiles we discuss either represent groups of women coming together to demonstrate against violence or are themselves the products of collaborative work. We discuss their often beautiful, seemingly cheerful aesthetics, and the ways in which they subvert visual storytelling trends to communicate the loss and suffering inflicted by conflict. They often combine storytelling with symbolism, and that gets us talking about the 'language of textiles' which transcends borders and continues to resonate across time. Among the pieces we look at are an arpillera made in 2021 by a Syrian refugee, a quilt made by WAVE trauma centre participants in Northern Ireland in 2013, and a textile stitched by an ex-combatant in Colombia who wants to 'unstitch' the idea that he is a monster and not human. These Conflict Textiles have much to teach us not just about habits and techniques of visualising war and its aftermath but also about what the process of visualisation and re-visualisation can achieve.
We hope you enjoy the episode. A blog with some of the images we discuss is available here, and listeners can find many more images on the Conflict Textiles website. For a version of our podcast with close captions, please use this link.
For more information about individuals and their projects, please visit the University of St Andrews Visualising War website.
Music composed by Jonathan Young
Sound mixing by Zofia Guertin