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Dearly Departed 

Politically charged tapestries on display at Gallery of Contemporary Art

Let it be said that Gerry Riggs and the folks at the UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art have a fine sense of timing. In the midst of fresh allegations of abduction and torture by former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, as well as the setting of an Oct. 9 hearing date in the first of his 171 criminal cases, gallery director Riggs and associate professor Andrea Herrerra have brought a fascinating collection of Chilean tapestry to the Gallery of Contemporary Art. (Defense attorneys for Pinochet are currently seeking to postpone any hearings in his case on the grounds of poor health.)

While Riggs won't take credit for bringing this fine collection to the area, he does acknowledge the importance of the show within the context of recent international events. "It couldn't be more timely," he said last week. "It is amazing what is happening right now in Chile."

The collection, originally scheduled in observation of National Hispanic Heritage Month, is composed of 42 brightly colored tapestries created by mothers, sisters and wives of the "detenidos disaparacidos" or detained disappeared. Over the course of the seven-year Pinochet military dictatorship, more than 3,000 Chileans were swept up by the government in an effort to squelch political protest.

While their relatives searched on a daily basis for information about their loved ones, the military disclaimed any knowledge of their whereabouts. Some bodies eventually turned up in the local morgue. Others were discovered in 1980 in mass graves in the countryside. Still others simply disappeared without trace.

According to Riggs, groups of women, distraught over the anguished uncertainty of their situation, began to form workshops centered around an old South American art form known as the arpillera. The word, which translates into burlap, originally referred to naive representations of quaint pastoral scenes. But in the late 1970s, the relatives of the detenidos desaparacidos turned this simple art form into a powerful vehicle for political protest. "They took the arpilleras and changed the subject matter," Riggs said, "so that they are much more powerful."

The arpilleras on display are roughly placemat-sized rectangles of cloth and thread showing disturbing glimpses of abduction and poverty. Perhaps their greatest artistic significance is in juxtaposition of these scenes of oppression with the cheerful colors normally associated with happier times. "On the surface, it seems like folk art," Riggs said. "The pieces are appealing to everyone, I think, because they are so charming and refreshing. But when you find out more and realize the horrific conditions they were made under, it causes them to evolve into something much more meaningful."

"Queremos sus cuerpos," translated "We want their bodies," protests one of the tapestries in the show. Another demands, "Where are the detained disappeared?" amid childish depictions of miniature tombstones. A third shows a water cannon spraying hapless protesters in brilliant color.

Indeed, the very construction of the pieces is a testament to the conditions in Chile during the Pinochet years. The burlap backing usually came from food bags originating in places like the United States. The arpilleristas took apart sweaters and other clothing for borders and the little dolls that represent disappeared loved ones. Then the arpilleras were embroidered together in the most difficult of conditions as the women sought to avoid detection by the authorities. "It took me a month to make it," said one mother. "I kept getting it dirty with my tears."

The tapestries were eventually smuggled out of the country and sold to provide a small income for families whose providers were missing or absent searching for menial labor in the provinces.

But they did more than bring in a few pesos. Against the backdrop of a government willing to do anything to silence its critics, the arpilleras let the world know that things in Chile were not as they seemed. Many of the first pieces had a pocket sewn into the back that held a scribbled message of desperation. "The biggest mistake we made was in not killing all of you too," a policeman told one mother.

Sometimes called "patchwork postcards to the world" the pieces were bought up by museums and a few interested individuals over the years. The collection at UCCS comes courtesy of Chilean author Marjorie Agosin whose book Tapestries of Hope: The Arpillera Movement in Chile, details the story of the arpilleristas and their struggle.

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