Day Fourteen | Textile Testimonies and Gender-Based Violence

Lydia Cole

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) have become topics of global focus. From #Metoo to landmark judgements in international criminal justice processes, visibility – amid promising calls for action toward justice – is often contingent on the testimony of survivors. In our haste to hear these stories, the long-term impact of demands for testimony is overlooked.

In this post, I propose an alternative site in which we might listen to and hear testimony. Specifically, I take a look at arpilleras – appliquéd wall-hangings – from Peru, featured in the Conflict Textiles collection. The term ‘arpillera’ literally means burlap or hessian, the material on which the textile is made. However, the term has become synonymous with this form of appliquéd wall-hanging.

 

The Conflict Textiles Collection: From Chile to Peru 

The Conflict Textiles collection is a physical and online archive of materials hosted by CAIN (Conflict Archive on the Internet) at Ulster University. Curated by Roberta Bacic and Breege Doherty, the mainstay of the collection is the Chilean arpilleras which were crafted to denounce violence under the Pinochet dictatorship. Made with the support of the Vicariate of Solidarity, arpilleras depicted the killing, disappearance, and poverty experienced under the regime, as well as acts of protest and everyday strategies of survival.

As with the collection itself, the arpillera travelled to other global contexts. Inspired by the Chilean arpilleristas (those who make arpilleras), women living through the Peruvian civil war (1980 to 2000) began to stitch the violence in their own country.

Curator Roberta Bacic uses the term “textile photograph” to describe the arpilleras; a reference to the way that they bear witness. The Peruvian arpilleras, like the Chilean pieces, testify to conflict experiences, depicting scenes of massacre, displacement and poverty, and commenting on issues related to gender-based violence.

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‘Debo ser humilde y sumisa? / Should I be submissive and subservient?’, Peruvian arpillera, Anonymous, 1986, Photo: Martin Melaugh, © Conflict Textiles.

‘Debo ser humilde y sumisa?’ (Should I be submissive and subservient?) was produced in 1986 in Lima. The textile shows a gathering in a room which has two posters emblazoned on the wall. One states: “Women, value yourself!”, while the other rhetorically asks, “Should I be humble and submissive?”.

This is an emotive piece, with the figures stitched with a range of expressions: some cast their eyes and heads down, though others take a different stance: the figure in light blue appears inquisitive, while three women sat at the bottom of the textile hold a book, perhaps engaging with the themes in the posters. Above all, the arpillera depicts: ‘women who have already made a space to deal with their issues’.

Providing answer to the poster’s question, the arpillera emphatically portrays a space of agency, with suggestion of their ongoing discussion of issues related to gender, violence, and patriarchy.

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Violar es un Crimen / Rape is a Crime’, Peruvian arpillera, MH, Mujeres Creativas workshop, 2008, Photo: Martin Melaugh, © Conflict Textiles.

‘Violar es un Crimen’ (Rape is a Crime) is a 2008 replica, with the original a design from the Mujeres Creativas workshops in 1985. The textile shows a protest which took place outside military command in Lima. On the right-hand side, a woman has entered the military command, angrily confronting the armed military police. All the figures wear dark colours and hold flowers, representing the cantata (the national flower of Peru). This flower is primarily found in the Andean mountains and its inclusion symbolises a connection to Ayacucho, the community for whom they protest. 

Speaking about the arpillera, Maria (a participant of the action) states:

In October 1985 many people were killed in Ayacucho and women were raped, but nobody protested. Two groups of us decided to demonstrate in front of Comando Conjunto… since the people… living in Ayacucho felt too vulnerable to do so… [Later we] decided to make an arpillera of our action to show that we do not condone such brutality.

‘Rape is a Crime’ denounces sexual violence and displacement in Ayacucho through its depiction of resistance and solidarity with those unable to make their voices heard.

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‘Violencia Doméstica / Domestic Violence’, Peruvian arpillera, MH, Mujeres Creativas Workshop, 2008, Photo: Colin Peck, © Conflict Textiles.

‘Violencia Doméstica’ (Domestic Violence) is another arpillera produced in the Mujeres Creativas workshops and responds to the contemporary context. The piece is divided into three sections. In the first, we are shown a scene of domestic violence within the home. The second shows the neighbours seeking justice at the local police station. Later, with the police unwilling to take further action, members of the community decide to enact their own justice. In the final panel, the man is tied to a tree and holds a sign which reads “I will not beat again”.  

Responding to the prevalence of domestic violence in Peru, the arpillera again speaks to a wider discussion among the group on issues of gender-based violence, and signals toward community action toward justice.

Conflict Textiles are therefore a promising site to learn (and unlearn) our ways of knowing SGBV. Untangling narratives of victimhood, together the arpilleras stitch a continuum of gender-based violence. As textile testimonies to a range of gender-based violence, arpilleras bring women’s voices, agency, solidarity and resistance to the fore. 

 

Dr Lydia Cole (@LydiaCCole) is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Durham University on ‘The Art of Peace: Interrogating community devised arts-based peacebuilding’. Completing her doctoral research at Aberystwyth University in 2018, her research engages at the intersections of feminist international relations theory, critical peace and conflict studies, and visual, creative and participatory research methods. Lydia’s research on gendered violence and conflict textiles has been published in journals including International Feminist Journal of Politics and Critical Military Studies. She has also co-curated exhibitions including Stitched Voices / Lleisiau wedi eu Pwytho and Threads, War and Conflict.

Day Eight | Reflecting on Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi Genocide through Poetry

Dudu Ndlovu

Zimbabwe

Silence 

Everyone knows of that time

That time nobody wants to go back to

That time that will never be forgotten

That time we never speak of

 

Screams in the night 

Fear gripping the most brave

Nobody wants to witness the shame

Gukurahundi Genocide

 

Daylight brings sunshine and blue skies

Yet the brightest song from the birds

Can never soak away 

The blood drenching the earth 

Calling out for justice 

 

Mothers bear a fatherless generation 

Girls pay with their sexed bodies 

Young men flee for their lives

Fathers killed for their politics

 

Silence labours to erase 

The trace of that time 

But like a woman bewitched

Produces a thousand times more

The stench of death

(Poem by Duduzile S. Ndlovu, 2015) 

 

Zimbabwe, a country on the southern tip of Africa, gained independence from direct colonial rule in 1980. This signalled the end of the liberation struggle; however, people in the Matabeleland and Midlands parts of the country (which were also strongholds for the opposition party at that time) experienced another war, this time at the hands of the army of the newly-independent country. 

The poem above reflects on this period, which is popularly known as Gukurahundi, where 20,000 people were killed or disappeared from 1980 to 1987. Much has been written on the causes of the Gukurahundi violence and most importantly that its victims have not received any acknowledgement or restitution for the pain suffered. Many see the Gukurahundi as a genocide meant to annihilate the Ndebele from Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean government has justified its silencing of the memorialisation of the violence by arguing that speaking about the Gukurahundi will incite ethnic division in the country.

Since the late 1990s, Zimbabwe began to experience economic decline resulting in an increase in the number of those migrating to neighbouring countries such as Botswana and South Africa, some as far as the United Kingdom and other countries across the globe in search of economic opportunities. As people migrate, they carry along with them their memories and trauma across the borders. Some of the victims of the Gukurahundi who migrated to Johannesburg find in it space to commemorate the Gukurahundi – which they couldn’t do in Zimbabwe, where the government prevented such efforts.  

There are calls for the acknowledgment of the Gukurahundi and for the truth about the atrocities to be made public so the perpetrators can be held accountable.  However, a male-centric, ethnic and nationalistic memorial narrative prevails in these memorials and calls for acknowledgement, reparation and reconciliation. Some calls for acknowledgement, for example, demand the cessation of borders to create an ethnically pure nation for the victims. This is despite the fact that many women were sexually violated and conceived and bore children out of the rape, thus making the idea of an ethnically pure nation impossible. Speaking about the sexual violence that many women (and some men) experienced and the presence of children born out of this thus presents an inconvenient truth. 

These calls for acknowledgement therefore do not provide women with spaces where they can speak about their pain from the sexual violence. The gendered location of women, their experience of conflict and how it is remembered is rarely captured and represented in popular memory (see, for example, ‘Gender, Memorialization, and Symbolic Reparations’ by Brandon Hamber and Ingrid Palmary). The above poem, ‘Silence’, which I wrote in 2015, seeks to rectify this, and make visible the ways in which violence is gendered, and how conflict is felt differently on different bodies.

 

Dudu Ndlovu is a postdoctoral fellow at the African Centre for Migration and Society. Her research interests include exploring arts-based research methods as a form of decolonising knowledge production; interrogating intersectionality through narrative work; and analysing the gendered politics of memory. Since March 2018, she has been developing this research agenda through a Newton Advanced Fellowship attached to the University of Edinburgh, Centre for African Studies (CAS) (2018-2020). Dudu completed her PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand focusing on Zimbabwean migrants’ use of art (poetry, music, drama, film) to navigate precarious lives; speak about violence – including the Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe and xenophobia in South Africa, and memorialise those events. More of her poetry can be found here.