Textiles dealing with everyday memories of war, political violence and disaster: The Stitching Memoryscape exhibition, Japan, 2017

A guest post by Tomoko Sakai 

The exhibition “Stitching Memoryscape” [1] incorporated Chilean arpilleras and other textile works from different areas in the world that deal with experiences of war, political violence and disaster. It was displayed in three venues in Japan – Sendai, Kyoto and in Nagasaki – from May to September 2017.

Title page of the flyer of the “Stitching Memoryscape” exhibition.

You can find the full Stitching Memoryscape flyer here.

Memoryscape: its concept and perspective

Memoryscape in this exhibition means images that lie embedded in people’s minds, which can be a landscape of their hometown or a scene from a life-changing event. Scenes from different historical periods can be amalgamated into a memoryscape, reflecting memories of times that one has lived through. This exhibition looked at the aspect of Chilean arpilleras as renditions of memoryscape. In their denouncement of the Pinochet dictatorship, arpilleras depict scenes that are important in Chilean social memory. Complex emotions towards home are also stitched: memories of hardship and suffering, as well as of community ties and a sense of belonging, can be seen in the everyday landscape of the población (shantytown). The arpilleras’ portrayal of multi-layered and often conflicting sentiments rooted in a particular social place has a universal appeal, which resonates too with social experiences of people who have lived in the areas affected by the tsunami and nuclear threat in Japan.


The exhibition had 30-45 textile works on display, though the number differed in each venue, due to the size of the room and the sub-focus of each venue. Although Chilean arpilleras were a main focus, there were also pieces made in Peru, England, Germany, Catalonia, Spain, India, Fukushima (Japan) and Nagasaki (Japan). Many pieces were drawn from Conflict Textiles collection in Northern Ireland, with the rest from various institutions, groups and people, among them the Oshima Hakko Museum, Nagano, Japan, which provided 10 Chilean arpilleras from their collection. The museum, a memorial institution dedicated to a poet who translated Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s works into Japanese and was active in Japan’s solidarity movement with Chilean people under the dictatorship, owns around 120 arpilleras made between 1988-1990. They are pieces donated to the museum by a prominent member of the solidarity group, a researcher of Latin American history and Emeritus Professor of Tokyo Foreign Language University, Takahashi Masa’aki.

Among the exhibits made locally were life-sized dolls from Naraha, Fukushima, and an arpillera depicting the scene of the doll-making activity. The dolls were made by a group of women living in Naraha Town, Fukushima Prefecture, 20 kilometers away from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant No. 1 that saw a serious failure triggered by the great tsunami in March 2011. Like in many other villages and towns adjacent to the power plant, most of the former town residents of Naraha have not been back to the town yet, even after the evacuation order was lifted, because of the fear and risk of radiation, the loss of jobs, and for other reasons. Facing the situation, five women who had returned to Naraha and who are members of “Naraha-Mirai” (Naraha Future), a local community group, began making life-sized dolls in 2016, placing them in the post office, banks and community centre to simulate the lively town before the nuclear disaster. Two life-sized dolls that the women made were displayed in the “Stitching Memoryscape” exhibition alongside the arpillera depicting the women making these dolls. This arpillera was made by the English arpillerista Linda Adams, who came to know about their activity through an English newspaper article. Linda received some scraps of textile from the women in Naraha and sewed them into her arpillera. In this way her arpillera demonstrates that needlework can create connections between women living in distant regions, and in different social circumstances.

In the third and final venue of the exhibition, Nagasaki, pieces related to experiences of the A-bomb were also displayed: wall hangings and nut dolls by Sumako Fukuda (1922-1974), a poet and activist who survived the bombing in Nagasaki. Suffering from illnesses caused by atomic-bomb radiation, Sumako worked on those pieces with her hands in order to inspire herself as well as to make a day-to-day living, the spirit of which echoes those of early Chilean arpilleristas who kept sewing their experiences at the height of political repression and economic difficulties.

Stitching Memoryscape_fig1
Fig 1. Life-sized dolls from Naraha, Fukushima, and two other textiles related to experiences of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster sewn by Irene MacWilliam and Linda Adams. Sendai, May 2017. Photo: Tomoko Sakai.


Preparing for the exhibition

The exhibition built on previous collaborative work between me, Tomoko Sakai (Tohoku Gakuin University, Japan), and Roberta Bacic (Conflict Textiles curator, Northern Ireland). We had organised an earlier arpillera exhibition together in 2010 at Osaka University, Japan, titled “Stitching Resistance – Narratives of Daily Life in Chilean Arpilleras.” [2] The conversation between the two of us about having another exhibition in Sendai began in 2015.

The organising work for the exhibition at a local level started in early 2016. The “Stitching Memryscape” organising committee was formed in May 2016 by academics, a curator/designer and an editor, and the committee ran a monthly public study seminar series from June 2016 to January 2017, to deepen the background knowledge to think about the potential of Chilean arpilleras, textile works and handicraft for society to deal with collective violent experiences. Although the organising committee was based closer to the first exhibition venue, in Sendai, each of the two other venues also had a committee member, who was an academic at a local university, and they were in charge of much of the logistics in each venue. Students from Tohoku Gakuin University (Sendai), Doshisha University (Kyoto) and Nagasaki University (Sendai) also worked as exhibition staff in each venue.

Stitching Memoryscape_fig3
Fig 3. Chilean arpillera depicting the scene of the discovery of bodies of the disappeared in the Atacama Desert in 1990. One of the participants to the arpillera doll-making workshop in Nagasaki made a dog she imagined to have belonged to one of the disappeared being unburied in the arpillera. September 2017. Photo: Tomoko Sakai.

In May 2017, Roberta Bacic travelled to Sendai from Northern Ireland to bring 22 textiles for the exhibition and joined its launch. She also visited the last venue of the exhibition, Nagasaki, collected the textiles and brought them back. In both venues, she participated in multiple activities, such as guided tours and arpillera doll-making workshops, and played central roles.

Associated activities

Different kinds of associated activities took place in all the three venues of the exhibition: a symposium, guided tours, talks, film-screenings and arpillera doll-making workshops. In the arpillera doll-making workshop in Sendai, three people based in Sendai and Iwaki joined the committee members and students at Tohoku Gakuin University. Each participant sewed a doll representing a person – real or symbolic – who had been meaningful for herself/himself. One made a doll of a Korean woman who was imagined to have been a “comfort woman” [3] (a during the Second World war, in the hope of the future development of mutual understanding between Korea and Japan. Another sewed her grandmother who had been very close to her in her childhood but had passed away a few years earlier.

In Nagasaki, five people from Nagasaki City and an overseas postgraduate student at Nagasaki University participated in the arpillera doll-making workshop. Here each participant picked up one textile among the exhibits and made a doll of somebody who was imagined to be part of the background story of the textile. In this way, the participants sought for a way of connecting with experiences described in the textiles. The screening of a documentary film about Sumako Fukuda’s daily life, “I Am Still Alive” (1973), also attracted many people.

Stitching Memoryscape_fig2
Fig. 2. Roberta Bacic explaining how to make an arpillera doll in front of the participants of the workshop in Sendai. June 2017. Photo: Megumi Chiba.

Overall, the exhibition was an attempt to explore how needlework, textiles and handicrafts help people to deal with violent experiences, and how they can contribute to the communication among people with different social and cultural conditions. Although there is much more work waiting to be done to explore these issues further, this exhibition provided extremely valuable in that it clearly demonstrated the universal appeal of everyday memoryscapes. As an organiser, I also hope that our project introduced to various groups of people in Japan an alternative medium to deal with their experiences and memories and to formulate social and political messages.


[1] The web archive Conflict Textiles has English information about this exhibition in the three venues: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nagasaki.

[2] The web archive Conflict Textiles has English information about this exhibition, which can be accessed here.

[3] During the Second World War, many women from the countries occupied by Japan, such as Korea, China and the Philippines, were forced to serve sexually to Japanese soldiers in “comfort stations” facilitated by the Japanese Army. Those women were called “comfort women”.

Tomoko Sakai works at Tohoku Gakuin University, Japan.

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