Collective Art as Resistance and Activism: The Arpillera “We are seeds”

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A guest post by Jimena Pardo, originally published in Stitched Voices (Nov 2017)

The arpillera “We are seeds” was made by London Mexico Solidarity with Movimiento Jaguar Despierto, The Wretched of the Earth, Expresión Inka, and BP or not BP? Workshops facilitated by Jimena Pardo and Angela Camacho. “We are seeds” has been exhibited at “A History of British Petroleum in 10 Objects”, an intervention in the British Museum, in “Conflict Textiles” at Aberstwyth University, and in “Conflict Textiles” at the Centre for Voluntary Action in Birmingham.

I visited the Stitched Voices exhibition in Aberystwyth earlier this year to see the arpillera “We are seeds”. I had been a part of planning and sewing this textile, made collectively by members of several grassroots groups, and had been involved in activities that used the arpillera for political protests. In Aberystwyth, I was also going to talk about this experience.

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“We are seeds” speaks of the more than 30,000 forced disappearances and the over 150,000 deaths and other injustices in Mexico’s current violence in the so-called “War on Drugs” – depicted through bodily shapes that seem to float through the air.The arpillera specifically denounces the 43 forcefully disappeared students of Ayotzinapa. Its imagery and text further reference the community-based struggle of the Zapatistas, a movement of indigenous communities in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, who assert their collective rights to territory, autonomy, and self-determination. And with patchwork and paint, it also tells the story of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the largest accidental ocean spill in history. Embroidered across the Cordillera in the background of the arpillera are the words, “They thought they could bury us but they did not know that we are seeds”.

I think what struck me at first when seeing “We are seeds” in the gallery at Aberystwyth Arts Centre was how a space can change the context and meaning of a political artwork. Our arpillera was displayed together with embroideries made by the families of the disappeared in Mexico as part of the Bordando por la Paz y la Memoria (Embroidering for Peace and Memory) movement, and this made for a very poignant and moving connection. It also showed how crucial an exhibition curator’s role is in connecting artworks and making them speak to each other.

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Yet, “We are seeds” was not made to be displayed in art galleries. We used it as part of the disobedient exhibition “A History of BP in 10 Objects”, which we displayed in the foyer of the British Museum (see video). The aim of this unofficial protest exhibition was to show the harmful environmental and social impact of BP Petroleum on communities around the world, whilst also condemning the funding of cultural institutions – such as the British Museum – by extractive industries. The impact of this protest work on the people we engaged with has been deep. The success of “We are seeds” as part of this is more of an ongoing conversation. Since we made the piece there have been more deaths and disappearances in Mexico and elsewhere, and it is becoming increasingly more dangerous to be a land defender or speaking out against injustices in Latin America. Activists and artists have a challenging time to create in the face of horrific events and violent actors.

The visual language of arpilleras is one of solidarity. It is deeply rooted in the experiences of Chilean women searching for their disappeared loved ones and denouncing injustices in the political turmoil of the Chilean dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. Using recycled fabrics and flour sacks, these women stitched their reality in defiance of a repressive and violent government. As with many of the arpilleras made in Chile, part of our process was working collaboratively with a number of London-based collectives who are in solidarity with people in Mexico. Just like in the Chilean tradition, we also collected materials that belonged to us to make the arpillera and we rotated it from house to house to finish off its different parts. In this process, our own connection with the work grew and made it hard to let it go – not least when we were asked whether “We are seeds” could be part of the Stitched Voices exhibition.

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“We are seeds” (Photo: Jimena Pardo)

Many of the popular social movements in Latin America have involved strong cultural outcries. Accordingly, there is a long history of collaborative artwork, e.g. in the form of murals and printing or, as in the case of Chile, of textiles made by groups of women. In Mexico it is textile groups (such as Embroidering for Peace) and printing collectives (such as Escuela de Cultura Popular Revolucionaria “Mártires del 68”) that are gathering people to join movements and generate solidarity. And it is here, in these spaces of protest, in the collaborations with artists and activists, that we are able to resist both individually and collectively.

Using humble media such as arpilleras that allow anyone to make, to create, to express and to heal, we cut across intellectual and fine-art boundaries and make for a more conscious society.


Featured images by Jimena Pardo and LMS

Grassroots Groups involved in making and planning of the action: Movimiento Jaguar Despierto; London Mexico Solidarity; BP or Not BP; The Wretched of the Earth; Expression Inka

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