Conflict Textiles: meaning and interpretation

Related to the question discussed in previous posts of whether the pieces in our exhibition were “art”, there was some contestation around whether conflict textiles have an aesthetic value as such, whether what counts is the story of their origin/the story they tell, or whether they are also a form of testimony about human rights abuses that the respective perpetrators try to sweep under the carpet. Let’s discuss!

Berit: I think there is something very factual about Conflict Textiles, something that makes them a testimony or witness. I am thinking here, on the one hand, of the term “textile photograph” that Roberta Bacic, the curator, used to describe the content of the arpilleras. What is shown on arpilleras are not abstract representations of violence or protest, but very specific scenes that actually happened: every doll represents somebody and the sites and events in which they are set really exist. In this sense arpilleras denounce. In the Peruvian context, as Elsie Doolan discusses, women even displayed an arpillera in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

“The women created this arpillera because, though they felt compelled to give their testimony, they were intimidated by the prospect of providing it in such a formal venue and in Spanish, a language they did not speak well.”[1]

In this sense arpilleras may empower people, give them a way of expressing themselves.

Arpilleras as textile photographs: Detail of “Encadenamiento | Women chained to parliament gates”, Chile, 1980s. Conflict Textiles collection. Provenance Arpillera collection, Kinderhilfe, Chile/Bonn. Photo: Felix Cannadam Photography

On the other hand, I am thinking of the content of the Mexican handkerchiefs: the texts on them are factual descriptions of who was killed/kidnapped where, when and how. Again, these pieces denounce real events, rather than just representing some abstract call for justice. On the last day of our exhibition, I embroidered an entire handkerchief, but only looked at its content when I had done the last stitch: it talked about a man who had been assassinated, gave details about the place and time of the assassination – but that was it. I do not know who he was, which side of the conflict he was on, why he was murdered. But what little fact is known publicly about him is now embroidered.

In both examples, I think, the Stitched Voices pieces are not about creating a single, unifying or dominating story or about finding the one truth – as you would expect to find in truth and reconciliation commissions –, but about allowing for difference and ambiguity, and for each personal story to be heard. Should the textiles therefore rather be conceived of as personal testimony perhaps?

Christine: I think there are a several different questions at stake here. One set of questions relates to the textiles’ signification or meaning: how do we conceive of their meaning – as representation, as text or as image, as story or as testimony, …? How do they carry their meaning, and how do others access this meaning – through the textiles’ visuals, through their materiality, or in yet another way? Another set of questions is that of the value of the textiles: what makes them valuable, or perhaps, how are they valuable – as art (their value being aesthetic), as records of struggles against violence, oppression and forgetting (their value being in the meaning they carry), as means of doing something for someone, of changing the world (their value being their political and emotional efficacy)? Where does their value originate from? Can it be said to reside in the textiles, or is it located elsewhere, or is not locatable/impossible to tie down in a specific site? It is difficult for us to disentangle these questions because we do not agree on how to answer them, and also because the questions are inextricably linked to each other. For instance, we might say – and this is actually something we all agree on, I think – that one important part of the textiles’ value lies in how they carry meaning and “tell their stories.” And on top of that, there is also the issue of who determines the answers to these questions: we as members of the commissioning team and authors of this blog are adding our voices to an ongoing discussion between textile makers, curators, activists and other academics whom we probably consider, in many ways, to speak more authoritatively on these matters.

How do we determine meaning and value of this conflict textile? “Centro de Torturas Cuatro Alamos | Cuatro Alamos torture centre” by Aurora Ortiz, Chile, 2014. Conflict Textiles collection. Photo: Eva Gonzalez

Perhaps we should start with some of these other voices. During our finissage, many of our guests emphasised that the materiality of the textiles was crucial for how they carried meaning. For some, this meant stressing the textiles’ materiality over the images they offered. Roberta explained that the material used in the arpilleras was often recognizable within the original context in which they are made – for instance, arpilleristas would use scraps from old school uniforms. Karen Nickell highlighted cloth’s particular quality for being collaged and underlined that because making textiles such as arpilleras is such a slow process involving so many individual decisions, every piece of cloth in a textile carries a specific meaning. There was also the idea that as media for conveying information, textiles can go beyond what texts can achieve. In this vein, Lorna Dillon claimed that the Stitched Voices “constituted more complex meaning systems”, and Heidi Drahota thought of them as “conveying information without [relying on] text.”

Some of our guests, however, were more hesitant about this exclusive emphasis on the textiles’ materiality. Jimena Pardo pointed out that the visuals of the arpilleras – in particular the sun rising over the Andes – were very important for the meaning the arpilleras had for the Chilean exile communities. And from the perspective of “an archivist and a collector of images and a sociologist with an interest in transitional justice”[2], Bill added that

“this materiality [of the textiles] is something I cannot recognise, I can only understand them visually. But then the family tells you the story and it hits you, and the textile piece takes on a completely different meaning, for instance when a piece includes cloth from the tie someone wore when he was murdered.”

Does this arpillera convey meaning through the material it was made of, or the symbols it uses, or the event it depicts? “Juan Pablo te esperamos | John Paul we are waiting for you”, Chile, 1986. Conflict Textiles collection. Provenance Kinderhilfe arpillera collection, Chile/Bonn. Photo: Martin Melaugh

Lydia: Bill also spoke about how the same or similar images can have different meanings across different times and contexts. His focus was on the imagery of people as heroes, martyrs, etc. of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and how the images of the same individual hold different meaning as the political context had changed. This is not to say that the images do not convey meaning – it’s clear that they do – but that the story they tell can evolve over time as memory shifts and evolves.

Many of our pieces were intended to be used rather than displayed. With many, but perhaps not all of the pieces, the context in which they are used can differ quite drastically. For example, “The Peace Ribbon” was originally made in the 1980s to be tied around the Pentagon to protest against nuclear weapons. Later, many of the pieces travelled around the world to be displayed and added to elsewhere. They take on different lives, different meaning dependent upon the context – for example, the viewer’s proximity to nuclear war.

Peace Ribbon panel
“Flower children,” Freeman, Chino Valley, Arizona. Panel of “The Peace Ribbon”. Thalia and Ian Campbell collection. Photo: Lydia Cole


Dani: To counter Bill’s comment, there’s loads about materiality, agency, things that speak etc. – too much almost to get something succinct in here! And it’s not a particularly useful debate… the key points of which are that some would argue that there is something additionally understandable, or a means of communication, in the materiality of the pieces such as conflict textiles, but then you usually need someone or some way or some thing to help you interpret it. It’s an inconclusive debate…

Lydia: Another point we could mention here is that of how individual people – mostly those disappeared and murdered – are represented in different kinds of textiles, whether visually or materially: by naming names (on the handkerchiefs), through dolls (arpilleras), through having a piece of their clothing included (again many arpilleras), through their letters (Stitching the Search), by individual contributions to a collective piece (The Peace Ribbon), through symbols (Disappeared), or through individual threads (as in Heidi Drahota’s work) – there are many more examples.

Dani: Well, one way of doing this, of bringing in the victims, is to open up or include the debates around re-humanisation and “grievability”, and the work of Judith Butler[3] and others. This is certainly what the handkerchiefs and naming do in the context of Mexico currently, where the victims of violence are subject to a strong narrative of criminalisation.

Christine: We could also consider this question of meaning from the angle of the “recipient” of the textiles’ meaning. For many of our exhibition’s visitors who had never before heard of or seen “conflict textiles”, it was the visuals or the aesthetic appeal of the pieces that initially attracted them, and it was through this initial attraction that they then became interested in the stories the textiles tell and in the contexts of these stories. This was my experience with the pieces as well – until, that is, I began to get to know and have conversations with some of their makers. However, in spite of our best efforts – I am thinking of the written guidance to our pieces that people could take around with them as they were walking through the gallery; the free guided tours; and the many events we organised at which textile makers shared their perspectives -, a sizable number of visitors who chose to walk through the gallery on their own and to not take up any of the opportunities we offered for learning more. And as Bill said, even we who want to understand “so often get the message wrong.”[4]

Berit: And then there were also people who visited our exhibition and rejected to use the information we had provided in the form of longer captions, or to take a tour – one man explicitly told an invigilator, who pointed the information folders out to him, that he was only interested in the aesthetics, not the background of the textiles.

Christine: This is a more general point with which I struggle: in how far did we – and in how far could we and should we – prescribe to the visitors of our exhibition how to approach it, how to make sense of it, and what to take away from it? On the one hand, Dani, I share your impulse that the stories of the pieces are too important not to be conveyed, but on the other hand, I hesitate to fully take on such a “pedagogical” approach.

Berit: I am also a bit wary of the idea of prescribing one single signification to a textile piece. Of course, makers intend something when they start making a textile, and maybe this intention stays the same throughout the life of the piece; but symbols and representations can also change their meaning or be used in changed circumstances, as Lydia has pointed out, and they will always be in some form or another “read”, interpreted and (perhaps) appropriated by others. Some research on arpilleras interprets them, first and foremost, as expressions and means of women’s gender equality struggles. Now, this is a very abstract interpretation of (most of) the Chilean arpilleras, whose makers give all sorts of reasons for making them, from economic income to a form of remembering or of bearing witness, but were at the time of dictatorial repression and essential survival least concerned with women’s rights. Is it an invalid interpretation, though? Not if you attribute some sort of agency to the pieces themselves, detached from their makers and their time of origin. I don’t think that I share this approach, but I can see why some people may choose it. So I think what we can do is inform about the context and origin of a piece and, if known, the reported intentions of the maker; but we also have to let go at some point, as we cannot and should not determine how others relate to a textile.

Christine: We could also ask how strict or lenient the makers of the different pieces in our exhibition are or would be when it comes to how their piece can be interpreted. For some makers, such as the Chilean arpilleristas, the quilter Nicole Drouilly, and the Mexican embroiderers, their textiles have to convey both a forceful political message and equally a very personal, even intimate story about their missing relatives. For some other makers, the political message might be the overriding one. For instance, the makers of We are seeds decided for the specific textile form of the arpillera in order to highlight the similarities between the arpilleras’ original historical context in Chile and the forced disappearances in contemporary Mexico; furthermore, as this arpillera was used for an intervention in the British Museum to protest against British Petroleum’s sponsorship of the museum,[5] its purpose was to criticise what is actually a very common practice in the art world.[6] By contrast, those makers who identify as artists might have – or rather, might be able to have – a more lenient attitude in this regard. For instance, Eileen finds that “as an artist, you want to give people the space to come up with their own meaning.”[7] This is a position towards questions of interpretation, which many other textile makers would not be able to afford.

Witness of violence and injustice, means of protest, or artistic representation? Detail of “We are seeds”, London Mexico Solidarity in collaboration with four other solidarity groups, UK, 2016. Photo: Felix Cannadam Photography

[1] Doolan, Elsie 2017: Transnational Textiles: Arpilleras Across the Globe. Paper presented at the conference “Researching the Americas”, University College London, 11 May 11 2017. On file with the authors.

See also Bacic, Roberta 2013: Arpilleras: Evolution and Revolution. Public Lecture, Friends of Te Papa, Main theatre, Te Papa Tonarewa, New Zealand. On file with the authors.

[2] Intervention by Bill Rollston at the workshop „Unacknowledged Voices: Arts and Crafts as Political Knowledge Archives“, Aberystwyth University, Department of International Politics, 12-13 May 2017.

[3] Butler, Judith 2010: Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? London, UK: Verso.

Butler, Judith 2004: Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence. London, UK: Verso.

[4] Intervention by Bill Rollston at the workshop „Unacknowledged Voices: Arts and Crafts as Political Knowledge Archives“, Aberystwyth University, Department of International Politics, 12-13 May 2017.

[5] Videos: and

[6] Presentation by Jimena Pardo at the workshop „Unacknowledged Voices: Arts and Crafts as Political Knowledge Archives“, Aberystwyth University, Department of International Politics, 12-13 May 2017.

[7] Intervention by Eileen Harrison at the workshop „Unacknowledged Voices: Arts and Crafts as Political Knowledge Archives“, Aberystwyth University, Department of International Politics, 12-13 May 2017.

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