Biographical narratives and textile art: a research example from the Colombian peace process

By Berit Bliesemann de Guevara and Beatriz Arias Lopez

[This text was first written in German for and published in: Gaby Franger (ed.): Alltag, Erinnerung, Kunst, Aktion: Rück Blick Nach Vorne, Begleitbuch zur Ausstellung “Rück Blick Nach Vorne 1989 2019 2030, Nürnberg: Frauen in der Einen Welt, 2019, pp. 50-53. For more information on the exhibition and events programme, click here. An interview with Berit Bliesemann de Guevara about the project (in German) can be found here.]

I am made of scraps’ (Sou feita de retalhos) – thus begins a well-known Brazilian poem. ‘Colourful bits of every life that passes through mine and that I am sewing into my soul. They are not always beautiful, not always happy, but they add onto me and make me who I am.’ [1] To explore these individual scraps and their stories, to understand them in the social context of the past and the present, and to imbue them with new meaning in order to enable a (more) positive future—that is the purpose of biographical work. In our respective previous research projects in Colombia and Myanmar, we have made use of creative approaches to biographical work, including drawings and textiles, to study the experiences of the victims of violent conflict. [2] Our current collaborative project employs narrative and textile conversations to explore the thus far only under-studied life trajectories of those who fought in the Colombian war and to bring their multilayered autobiographical stories into dialogue with dominant public narratives.

Specifically, our project works with former members and supporters of the demobilised Colombian guerrilla group FARC. [3] In 2016, after decades of armed struggle, the FARC signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government and disarmed. More than two years later, however, the peace process has become stuck: the Colombian state has implemented many parts of the agreement either only partially or not at all; violence against human rights activists and social leaders has risen dramatically; and in some regions, new armed and/or criminal groups have formed. These politics of discord are legitimised by a one-dimensional public narrative, dominant in the media and among the urban (and often less war-affected) populations, which defines the ex-guerrilleros in predominantly negative terms: as enemies, terrorists, delinquents. This dominant perspective obscures the varied experiences of Colombia’s demobilised guerrilleros, which in addition to that of being a member of an armed group also include many other experience scraps.

On the one hand, there is the patchwork of war. Biographical work with perpetrators and victims of  armed violence reveals the multifaceted and contingent nature of experiences of violence in Colombia’s rural areas. The same peasant communities from which most of the members of the different sides to the conflict—the guerrilla, the military and the paramilitary—were recruited were also the main victims of violence and forced displacement, with conflict lines sometimes running through families. The decision to join one of the armed groups, and indeed which one to join, was more often a matter of serendipity or survival rather than a question of ideology. Many of the former guerrilleros with whom we work joined the FARC already at the age of 14 to 17 years, often against the background of the armed violence their families had experienced. When they speak of their family today, they often refer to the guerrilla in which they have spent the major part of their lives.

On the other hand, our approach to biographical work highlights the multi-historical nature of life trajectories, which makes former guerrilleros more than merely “ex-fighters”. It sheds light on their family histories; their differing motivations for joining the armed struggle; their roles as fathers, mothers, children, siblings; their gender roles; their desires and hopes. Biographical work helps to comprehend biographies in their complexity and counters simplifying labels that stand in the way of former guerrilleros’ successful reincorporation into civilian society. When we asked the former commander and now leader of the community of demobilised FARC fighters in which we conduct our fieldwork which name he preferred for his community, he said: ‘Neither NPR [4] nor ETCR [5]—as long as they give us these names we will be stigmatised. I prefer that they say about us that we are simply a community of Colombians who want to live.’ [6] In this kind of context, biographical work can also help to rewrite individual and collective histories and to imbue them with new meaning.

Yet after decades of war and in a general climate of mistrust, how do we convince disarmed guerrilleros to open up to a group of researchers from Colombia and the UK, to tell us about their lives and to share confidential information with us which, if not handled carefully and responsibly, could put them in considerable danger? How can we generate the trust which is essential for biographical work? To these ends, and in addition to conversational and narrative interview methods, our work with demobilised FARC members and supporters in the newly founded community of San José de Leon in the department of Antioquia also uses textiles—or more precisely, textile books. 

In Latin America, there is a rich tradition of political ‘conflict textiles’. [7] In Europe, Latin American conflict textiles became known mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, when solidarity groups bought Chilean arpilleras—colourful, three-dimensional wall hangings depicting political killings, detentions, torture and forced disappearances committed by the Chilean security services—to support the victims of the Pinochet regime financially and to help make the stories documented in the arpilleras known to an international public. [8] Textiles have been and are being used to denounce violence and to memorialise its victims in other Latin American countries, too. In Mexico, relatives of people who have been forcefully disappeared in the so-called “war on drugs” meet in public plazas to embroider handkerchiefs which memorialise each of the victims and draw attention to the ongoing human rights violations. In Colombia, we find not only wall hangings in the arpillera tradition and embroidered handkerchiefs, but also installations of rag dolls representing disappeared relatives, made by women who publicly demand that these past atrocities be accounted for, as well as crocheted landscapes, to be displayed on the floor, which represent the villages, fields and landscapes that shape life in these rural communities. [9]

In our project, we use the idea of a biography made up or “stitched together” out of the scraps of our encounters and relationships with others over the course of our lives to get into conversation with the inhabitants of San José de Leon—and the methods works. In a first workshop, we asked the ca. 30 male and female, young and old participants to sew scraps of fabric symbolising the patchwork of the most important experiences of their lives onto a piece of paper. Many moving stories emerged: stories of life in the guerrilla, of family tragedies and reunifications, of death and birth, of fears and hopes (see figure 1). Now, the aim of subsequent workshops has been to make these stories into textile books. As embroidered and sewn expressions of the multifaceted life experiences of our participants, these books will form the core of a traveling exhibition which is meant to facilitate individuals’ memory work and to incentivise societal dialogue. Certainly, further stories will emerge from this process—for hitherto, what our experience with textiles as a research method has demonstrated is that working manually with needle and thread creates an almost magical atmosphere very conducive to open exchange.

IMG_9749
Figure 1: In situ exhibition of the results of the workshop “I am made of scraps” with former FARC members and supporters, San José de Leon, Antioquia, Colombia, 10-11 April 2019 (photo: B. Bliesemann de Guevara).

This last point is also true for our own research team. Our project is conceived within the qualitative-interpretive research tradition, in which the researcher understands herself as part of the social world she studies and therefore acknowledges that her research findings are intimately interwoven with her own interpretations. Such research necessitates constant self-reflection—the researcher must be aware of and disclose how her interpretations follow also from her own life trajectory and positionality in the world. In our project, a collaboration of nine female researchers, we use textile methods in order to put into practice this reflexivity both individually and as an international team of researchers. Hence, we have reflected on the objectives of our project, entitled “(Un-)Stitching Perspectives on the Subjects of the Reconciliation Process in Colombia”, in a textile book, too (see figure 2). A second textile book, detailing our own stereotypes which our work has brought us to un-stitch and re-stitch, is currently in the making.

IMG_9729
Figure 2: Textile book “(Des)tejiendo miradas” ((Un-)stitching perspectives) made by the research team, exhibited in San José de Leon, Antioquia, Colombia, 11 April 2019 (photo: B. Bliesemann de Guevara).

This combined method of biographical conversations and textile-making has many possible applications beyond the Colombian case and beyond studies of armed violence. In Germany, for instance, the Nuremberg-based textile artist Heidi Drahota has employed textile art in her work with migrants and refugees in order to document their experiences, un-stitch stereotypes and weave new perspectives. [10] In this sense, textile work is also peace work, or as the Brazilian poem concludes: ‘So, thank you to each of you, who are part of my life and who allow me to enhance my story with the scraps left in me. May I also leave pieces of myself along the paths so that they can become part of your stories. And that in this way, scrap by scrap, we can become, one day, an immense embroidery of “us”.’ 


About the authors: 

Dr Berit Bliesemann de Guevara is a Reader at the Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University, UK.

Prof Beatriz Arias Lopez is professor at the Faculty of Nursing, University of Antioquia, Medellin, Colombia. 


About the project:

This text is based on work of the international collaborative research project “(Des)tejiendo miradas sobre los sujetos en proceso de reconciliación en Colombia / (Un)Stitching the subjects of Colombia’s reconciliation process”, jointly supported by the Colombian research council Colciencias (project reference FP44842-282-2018) and the British Newton Fund (project reference AH/R01373X/1) and hosted by Aberystwyth University, UK, and the University of Antioquia, Colombia, and the Association of Victims and Survivors of Northeast Antioquia, Colombia.


Acknowledgements:

The authors would like to thank the members of the research team: Laura Coral, Berena Torres, Gray Ceballos, Marta Rendón, Blanca Valencia, Pilar Parra, Jessica Valencia and Christine Andrä. We also thank Maria Mercedes Rojas and Andrea Ortega who provided invaluable knowledge about textile narratives and narrative practices, respectively.


Notes:

[1] Authors’ own translation. The poem has been wrongly attributed to the poet Cora Coralina, while more recent research has revealed that it was actually written by Cris Pizzimenti from Sao Paulo (see http://www.50emais.com.br/poema-sou-feita-de-retalhos-nao-e-de-autoria-de-cora-coralina/).

[2] Arias Lopez, Beatriz E. (2017). Entre-tejidos y Redes. Recursos estratégicos de cuidado de la vida y promoción de la salud mental en contextos de sufrimiento social. Prospectiva 23, 51-72; Arias Lopez, Beatriz E. (2015) Hand-Woven Narratives of Peasant Resistance: Three questions about a Colombian experience. In G. Franger and C. Lohrenscheit (eds.) Peace Building, Gender And Social Work, Nürnberg: Paulo Freire Verlag, pp. 247–260; Julian, Rachel, Berit Bliesemann de Guevara and Robin Redhead (2019): From Expert to Experiential Knowledge: Exploring the Inclusion of Local Experiences in Understanding Violence in Conflict, Peacebuilding 7(2): 210-225.

[3] Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

[4] Nuevos Puntos de Reincorporación (“New Reincorporation Points”) = Communities of former FARC fighters, who have formed on their own initiative and largely without the state’s support—such as the community in which we work.

[5] Espacios Territoriales de Capacitación y Reincorporación (literally: “Territorial Capacitation and Reincorporation Spaces”) = designated areas, in which demobilised FARC fighters were supposed to settle with state support, but many of which have already dissipated due to a lack of support or which are struggling with a host of economic, social and security problems.

[6] Quote from a conversation between the former commander/current community leader and Beatriz Arias Lopez, San José de Leon (Antioquia, Colombia), 2 March 2019.

[7] See the website of the “Conflict Textiles” collection, collected and curated by Roberta Bacic for examples from Latin America and other world regions: https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/conflicttextiles/. On the political role of textiles in world history, see also: Bryan-Wilson, Julia (2017) Fray: Art and Textile Politics. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press (YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3Vgl6sFckE); Hunter, Clare (2019) Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle, London: Hodder & Stoughton; Stitched Voices, Blog with numerous different contributions: https://stitchedvoices.wordpress.com. 

[8] Adams, Jacqueline (2013) Art Against Dictatorship: Making and Exporting Arpilleras under Pinochet. Austin: University of Texas Press; Agosín, Marjorie (ed.) (2014) Stitching Resistance: Women, Creativity, and Fiber Arts. Turnbridge Wells: Solis Press.

[9] Arias Lopez, Beatriz E., Mateo Valderrama, Laura Coral und Elsa Parra (forthcoming) La colcha panguiseña: Una manta contadora de historias para la co construcción de cartografias con mujeres negras en Colombia. Revista ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies. See also https://bit.ly/2KzGivD. 

[10] A video in German about Drahota’s project “Schicksalsfäden – Stoff, den das Leben schreibt!” (Threads of fate – the fabric woven by life) can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FW382xQxzB8. On the different uses of textile making in contexts of peace and conflict, see also: Corbett, Sarah (2018) How to be a craftivist: the art of gentle protest. London: Unbound (YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtHaM7j3Hvg); Harrisson, Eileen (2019): The significance of stitch as vehicle for visual testimony and metaphor for violence and healing, Critical Military Studies: DOI 10.1080/23337486.2018.1559580; Nickell, Karen (2015) “Troubles Textiles”: Textile Responses to the Conflict in Northern Ireland, TEXTILE, 13:3, 234-251.

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