By Danielle House
“It felt quotidian, in a way it was ordinary – there was no performance – and it was just incorporated into the landscape of the plaza.” This was how Stitched Voices curator Roberta Bacic described her recent experience of joining the group Fuentes Rojas in a plaza in the south of Mexico City one Sunday afternoon in December, to embroider for Bordamos por la Paz (Embroidering for Peace).
The project Bordamos or Bordando por la Paz began with this group in Mexico City in 2011, and then spread across Mexico and internationally. Embroiders sew the names of victims of the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ onto handkerchiefs, a handkerchief for each victim. Those murdered are embroidered in red thread, those disappeared in green representing the hope they be found alive, and victims of femicide and gender violence are stitched in purple and pink. The embroidery is, in general, done in public space: in plazas and on streets, where the public can witness and participate. This collective and dynamic project has evolved in many ways over these years, but those involved see it as both a public memorial and a way to testify to and denounce the violence that is taking place daily. In their vast quantity the handkerchiefs have, in my mind, become a visual representation of the scale of the violence. Fuentes Rojas in Mexico City number their handkerchiefs, and embroider this number next to the total number of victims since 2006. The quantity of handkerchiefs, however, pales in comparison to the number of bodies; in the months I spent embroidering with them in 2016 around 2,800 handkerchiefs had been completed, but the number of people killed had risen from 40,000, embroidered on the first ones stitched in 2011, to 167,000.
Three groups of embroiderers – Fuentes Rojas from Mexico City, Bordando por la Paz Puebla from Puebla, and FUNDENL, an association of relatives of the disappeared from Monterrey – each loaned four handkerchiefs to us for the Stitched Voices exhibition in Aberystwyth, which hung from a wire stretched across one corner of the room. It was challenging to bring this ongoing politically active project, designed for plazas and streets, into a gallery in Mid-Wales. Hanging them in a way that respected how they are used in Mexico to try to convey the sense of the spontaneous and their inherent combination of power and delicacy felt appropriate, rather than display them on a wall. Below these were two chairs and a basket full of handkerchiefs with victims details drawn on ready to be embroidered, which visitors to the exhibition could stitch if they felt moved to do so. These handkerchiefs were also embroidered in sessions at various venues during the exhibition and a regular group embroidered weekly inside the gallery. As these were completed they were added to a second wire that hung along the wall behind those from Mexico, and we watched it grow over the weeks.
During Roberta’s trip to Mexico she met with some of these embroiderers and other people involved in textile responses to the human rights crisis facing the country. At a workshop held in one woman’s home Roberta presented several of her arpilleras, shared the story of the Conflict Textiles collection, ran a doll-making workshop, and learned about Bordamos and other projects organised by those present. “It was extraordinarily warm”, she described, “difficult stories were very well told”. To her the similarities between the movement underway in Mexico and that of the arpillerístas in Chile in the 1970s were clear. Particularly this gathering and the collaboration that took place reminded her of the first arpillera workshop she went to, held in a home in Santiago. This domestic element is important but it is not a loud statement. Rather it subtly conveys what these textile responses are for and whom they are done by. And intimate gatherings like this, which went from the early afternoon well into the evening, are the spaces where a quiet but powerful kind of politics is taking place.
On this trip in December Roberta returned the handkerchiefs we had been kindly loaned and gave those we embroidered in Wales to these three groups. The words stitched by many hands in a small town in Wales are now with those in Mexico, to be hung and to testify in plazas across the country, moving in the breeze and sunshine on Sunday afternoons, creating just what Roberta described: something both ordinary and extraordinary in its presence.