Conflict textiles: value and commodification

In an earlier post, we discussed questions of meaning and interpretation of Conflict Textiles, who or what determines what they signify and how they should be understood. A question we only touched upon but did not go into is that of the textiles’ value. What value do the textiles have for those who created them? And in what ways has the process of the Stitched Voices exhibition itself been valuable?

Dani: One element I would like to discuss about the textiles in Stitched Voices why they were made and for what gain or reason. As we have already said, the majority of these pieces are not made by people who define themselves as “artists”. They are not made for sale (in conventional art dealership terms), nor for gallery or private ownership, to be part of a private art collection. They were usually made for two reasons, I believe, which have two different logics. We can imagine that most makers of these textiles knew and know that once completed, these pieces would be able to travel, testify, and have in many ways “political lives”. This was clear for the arpilleristas of Chile, for whom to make, own, and sell arpilleras was illegal and highly dangerous. That many of the groups embroidering in Mexico have had to stop or move indoors due to intimidation is further testament to the fact that something in the production of these textiles is threatening.

As harmless as they may seem – making, owning or selling arpilleras was illegal and highly dangerous during the dictatorship. “Verdulería en la población | Greengrocers in a población”, Chile, c.1980. Conflict Textiles collection. Provenance Arpillera collection, Kinderhilfe, Chile/Bonn. Photo: Martin Melaugh

But to think that political activism is the main or only reason for producing these textiles misses the site in which I feel most value is created. It is the creation, and creative expression, of something that represents living in conflict that has emotional value in these pieces. That someone (often some woman) somewhere has taken the time to embroider or stitch a story from their life or to create a response to a conflict elsewhere, is part of the stories these textiles tell. Stitching is a slow process, whichever technique used. To choose to respond to violence in this way is to choose a slow and thoughtful engagement with an issue, or one person’s story, and to labour to create something, it is a process of taking care. They are responses to violence when it is hard to know how to respond, a way of speaking when words fail. And they are not made by “artists” but by anyone.

Caring about “the Troubles”: Conflict textiles by women from Nortehrn Ireland

Untitled” by Sandra Pendon, Northern Ireland, 2013.Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council Museum Collection. Photo: Deborah Stockdale.
Pub Bombing, Waterfoot, Cushendall” by Anne McLaughlin, Glenmona Resource Centre, Cushendall, Northern Ireland, 2013. Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council Museum Collection. Photo: Deborah Stockdale.
The Side of the Wall” by Michele Connor, Fab Femmes, Ballymoney, Northern Ireland 2013. Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council Museum Collection. Photo: Deborah Stockdale.

During the exhibition we have been embroidering weekly, creating handkerchiefs for the Bordando por la Paz groups that lent us pañuelos for the exhibition. The groups will receive theirs back along with many more that have been stitched here in Aberystwyth. We’ve run workshops to make arpillera dolls, protest banners, and an arpillera itself, all of which stayed within the gallery. Beyond creative textile responses, we’ve held events in the gallery amongst the exhibition, bringing song, poetry, and dance into the room in an attempt to make the space a creative and dynamic one, rather than sterile.

Growing wall of handkerchiefs made in Wales and embroidered in solidarity with Mexican families

In summary, then, there is an emotional journey that takes place when making – whether during conflict as the original arpilleristas and the embroiderers in Mexico now, or in response to conflicts we see around the world – that to me is the site of the value these pieces hold. The process of making, and making during the exhibition also, is to give people a means to respond themselves, which can be a powerful emotional process for the maker as well as create a material thing that can mean a lot to others.

Berit: I would very much agree with this. There is a good example in what has been written in reaction to Stitched Voices of how the process of making can actually change the perception and experience of this exhibition. The same Michael Tomlinson, who I have cited in a previous post as a critic of conflict textiles as art, finishes his blog entry by describing the effects that the act of making (here: embroidering handkerchiefs) had on him and how it changed his perspective on Stitched Voices as a whole:

“Hung out like washing above one corner of the gallery are handkerchiefs, embroidered with messages remembering the dead and disappeared of Mexico. Visitors are encouraged to contribute to this work by doing simple running stitch along already-marked handkerchiefs in the two sewing chairs below. It is an immersive process, more so for the writing, which suggests stories that are almost too awful to contemplate and are unthinkable here in Britain. I am soon lost in a task that is only a few letters long. How much more then must this act of devotion, of willful remembrance, mean to the people who have experienced the appalling violence, bereavements and unknowingness? It is their voices that give a more sophisticated shape to the works here in this exhibition.”

Christine: I guess another way of thinking about the textiles’ value is to wonder about the problem of commodification. As we have said before, while arpilleras were often sold to generate a humble income for their makers, the Stitched Voices in general are not nearly as much “at risk” of being commodified in the way in which fine art is. However, this does not mean that commodification of textiles is completely out of the question. One of the makers involved in Bordamos por la Paz, Cordelia Rizzo, mentioned to us that this problem was very much on the minds of the embroiderers when they discussed whether to lend some of the handkerchiefs they had made to exhibitions in other countries.[1] Yet I wonder: in how far are we, as the commissioning team who are exhibiting the textiles, not also commodifying them? While we are not commodifying them in the standard sense of the term, but we are making them and the exhibition into something that is of value for us academically – something to write a paper (or a blog!) about, something to put on our CVs and websites, something for our Department to tout. In an earlier blog post, Berit mentioned Pierre Bourdieu. In this sense, are we not capitalising on the textiles and the exhibition, reaping their value as we turn them into commodities or “symbolic capital” within our field, International Politics?

Dani: I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this. There is absolutely no reason why this should not be seen as a form of commodification, and I can think of and have seen examples where this kind of engagement has felt and been pretty hollow. I think this comes back to the point I tried to make about how so much of Stitched Voices came together through personal relationships. I feel like we will all continue to work on this project in all the directions it may go in in the manner we intended, but this is one of those things that is impossible to quantify. I’m not sure that this is a very good answer; theoretically yes, I think you are right, practically we can just keep trying to tow this line as we have done at every step so far also in the steps that lie.

Lydia: The development of personal relationships does seem to be one of the key ways that we were able to mitigate against issues of commodification. In this sense, we have all taken time to meet, speak to, and understand the importance of the pieces and the stories behind them. I think this has helped us to convey the value of the pieces to visitors too. Many of them became involved in the exhibition in some way. They created and participated, rather than simply coming in to look at the pieces on their way to the Arts Centre café.

Often sold to help earn a livelihood: Chilean arpilleras. “Ayuno | Fasting” by María López, Chile, 1990. Conflict Textiles collection. Provenance Oshima Hakko Museum collection, Japan. Photo: Martin Melaugh

Berit: The commodification aspect is an interesting one. Stitched Voices does not involve commodification in the moneymaking sense – after all, the pieces are valued very lowly in financial terms, the exhibition and events were free to the visitors, and Roberta does not make any money with curating Conflict Textiles. I also disagree with Cristina Ruiz, the fierce critic of the biennale cited already in one of our previous blog posts, who thinks that blurring the line of what is considered as art actually contributes to art’s commodification:

“Paradoxically, in her attempt to argue that art is much more than its market, Marcel [the Biennale’s curator] has completely overlooked its power to impress and seduce us with its visual appeal or its capacity to engage us with its complexity. This is a pedantic, didactic and at times offensive show that will have us running to the next round of contemporary art sales at Christie’s or Sotheby’s just so we can see some good art. It is an experiment that has seriously backfired.”

This is not what I expect to happen as an effect of Stitched Voices, not least because the people involved in it as participants or visitors have less of a stake in the art world than Ruiz does (she might say they are not art-savvy?).

Nonetheless, I agree very much with Christine’s point that we capitalise on the textiles – in Bourdieu’s sense of different forms of capital – when we take these pieces out of their context and insert them into the academic field, here: the academic discipline of International Relations, and convert them into forms of capital that help us, our careers and perhaps our Department’s prestige. We will use the exhibition on our CVs as example of how well we are able to engage the broader public and effect impact in an environment guided by the demands of Research Excellence (if staying in academia) or of our organisational skills and creativity (outside of academia). We will take Stitched Voices to other sites, always making sure that the University and departmental logo figure on every new version of the exhibition, since it was us who commissioned it in the first place and put energy and money into pulling it together. We will hopefully publish an academic article or two about conflict textiles and use those again as capital to advance in our field. None of this has anything to do with the victims, bereaved or activists.

Yet, the difference is – and here I would agree very much with what Dani and Lydia have said – that we have made an enormous effort to give something back, to be ethical about using the textiles, and to value them, their stories and makers along every step of the way – to let what is inevitably “in there” for us not be the only, and least the most important, benefit of Stitched Voices.

“Movimiento contra la tortura | Movement against torture”, Chile, 1989. Conflict Textiles collection. Provenance Oshima Hakko Museum collection, Japan. Photo: Martin Melaugh

Dani: There is a related aspect to this question in how, once you create something and put it in public for people to interpret, you have no control on its life beyond you – how it will be interpreted, used, abused… I think this is more of a very real issue for the contributors who are still active and whose projects are live (I am thinking here of London Mexico Solidarity, the Mexican embroiderers, and Nicole Drouilly, the maker of Stitching the Search), who have had to really consider what it means to choose to participate in this exhibition, and relinquish that bit of control.

Christine: Actually, this is an issue we as academics know, too. Roberta stressed that our writing of a paper and presenting it at an academic workshop places a responsibility on us, namely the responsibility that comes with introducing conflict textiles such as the arpilleras to our academic field, International Politics. To her, this means that we have to make sure that the textiles are understood correctly, that they will not be “misinterpreted” by future research. But, and going back to what we have discussed here and in a previous post, I don’t think we can ensure this in such a categorical way. Whether it is a piece of writing or a textile work, once you make it public, you have to give up control. Perhaps this similarity between the experiences of textile makers, activists and artists on the one hand, and academics on the other, can also help us in having conversations: this shared “difficulty” could help us appreciate the value of our – in many other respects so different – lines of work, and it could be another starting point for discussions and collaborations.

[1] Cordelia Rizzo, intervention at the roundtable “Stitched Voices: Women’s Activism and Crafting Resistance“, Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University, 5 May 2017.

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