DAY TWO: In darkness we find light 

Artist and educator Masa Hilcisin’s deeply personal reflection on the power of stories and possibilities for healing after the trauma of war.

Masa Hilcisn

Above featured image provided by author

I grew up in war. It shaped my dreams. It shaped my world. It shaped my deepest perspectives about life, people, countries, separations, and identities. It shaped my life path for good. It shaped my deep sense of not belonging, of not wanting to belong to a particular nation state, to a particular flag, hymn, nationality, place. It taught me some of the most valuable life lessons. It taught me that my home is inside of me. It taught me my country is the whole world. It taught me of courage. It taught me of the importance of compassion and love. It taught me that in order to appreciate light in the most profound way I need first to experience darkness. It taught me how to find wisdom in the darkest experiences. It taught me that one of the most profound ways to heal is by producing my own art. 

In order to heal, I knew I had to make distance from that physical place that was and still it is so wounded by war.

I carved my way by forming my own voice, protesting for better rights of women and girls, by stepping out from silence, by voicing personal narratives, by addressing violence, by forming my own aesthetic, by writing, by filming, by recording, by dancing, by endless creating.

Living in a space that witnessed mass rape of women and girls during the war, all forms of sexual violence and use of rape as a weapon of war taught me lessons that will keep marking my personal and professional paths. I wanted to understand scope of collective and individual narratives that I belong to. I wanted to understand if there is a way out. I wanted to understand if and how healing can take place. I wanted to understand the power of sharing stories.  I wanted to understand my own personal narrative and ways I can share it.  

I found art to be among the most profound tools to tell what is internalized, to express what is not so tangible, to address shadows, suffering, and pain, to scream, scratch, dig layers of stories surfacing from mud. I did not have formal education in art besides music in high school. I learned how to create by using my inner voices, guidance, and deep urge for expressing stories and healing what needed to be healed. I learned from fragments of war, I learned from the first bullets shot into my home, I learned from massacres. I learned from bombs being dropped on people and places. I learned from blood on our streets. I learned from funerals behind our building. I learned from fears/anxieties/ facing/death/abyss/endlessness/isolation/loneliness/hunger/shame/threatening/horror/violence/not-belonging…   

Image above: This image represents a collage of woman and animal with core wounds but enormous power to heal. 

I carved my way by migrating to new worlds both physical and mental, by facing fears and by building my own space in a new country, by allowing myself to be in survival mode, by allowing myself to lose what needed to be lost, by allowing myself to not give up my creative force, by allowing myself to try and experiment with new creative entities. Those entities were personal plains composed from video fragments, documentary elements, real life moments, fractures of daily life, stages and processes of deep personal journeys. They were composed from fears, happiness, anxieties, losses, gains, sufferings, pains, colors, tears, laughter, hugs, mourning, intimacies, birth deliveries. I moved to new places. I moved to the city called Prague that become my new entity of presence, creating, learning, facing, and healing. I’ve been wanting to leave country of my origin, that wounded place, since the age of thirteen. I felt deep down and instinctively that the only way to heal is to make a distance from that wounded place. My new place of living became a new plane to keep learning and creating my own art. 

Image above: A photograph of the water that Hilcisin saw on her way to a workshop. 

I looked for many answers, and after creating enough physical distance from the physical space which was and still is so traumatized by war, I finally started with establishing a dialogue with an internalized past and the outside world through a visual plane. I used that visual plane to articulate some of my deepest and most painful personal narratives. I used that plane to heal my wounded past. I used that plane to learn the importance of sharing: sharing stories we want and need to share. 

The result of that was that I began working on a series of visual narratives constructed through personal images. For the past several years, I have been continuously creating and sharing personal narratives which became the main source of inspiration to develop further visual storytelling work. This work is composed from creating collages, drawings, paintings, singing, performing, filming…creatively expressing personal stories, narratives that we want to share but never did, narratives that we buried deeply inside, narratives that we never had a chance to tell, narratives that we want to heal, narratives that we want to use for the empowerment, narratives that need to be told, narratives that need to be heard. 

There was a strong urge to be of service to other women and girls. There was a deep belief that we experience hardship in order to be able to be of service to other communities around the world.

I established my own professional path by drawing inspiration, courage, and wisdom from my own personal pain and by continuous learning from other artists, creators, survivors: all those who are my endless source of inspiration, learning, and support. 

Image: From Masa Hilcisin’s collection “Inwards” representing the process of facing herself and her own shadow. 

Author’s bio

Masa Hilcisin is an artist and educator.  She teaches film production, and visual storytelling, and holds a PhD in Film Studies and Audio-Visual Culture from the Masaryk University. Masa has been involved in many cultural and artistic projects, including film festival curating and various women artists’ support initiatives. She runs World Community Connect, a platform for personal storytelling which serves women and girls in the Czech Republic and abroad. 

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.

quilt cole 1
‘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.

quilt cole 2
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.

quilt cole 3
‘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.