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Embroidered stories

“The Train Station (gabba), 1979.” Artist Unknown. Kahuta, Pakistan. International Folk Art Foundation Collection. Museum of International Folk (FA.1985.464.13) (Courtesy of The Museum Of International Folk Art)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The stories blaze through a crazy quilt of primary colors, line and shape percolating with an undercurrent of sadness.

Open at Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art, the 14 textiles in “Sewing Stories of Displacement,” these works of cotton and wool capture moments of violence, political upheaval and natural disaster. The exhibition will hang through Sept. 27.

Since the 1960s, displaced people throughout the world have embroidered the stories of their forced migrations, changes and memories of more stable lives. They have documented their experiences, shared perspectives and supplemented their incomes during desperate times. Most of the artists are unknown women from five continents. They lived in remote rural areas, shantytowns, cities or refugee camps. Many had never sewn before. But they sewed their stories.

“Detention Center (arpillera), ca. 1978.” Artist Unknown. Santiago, Chile. Gift of Louise Durston, Museum of International Folk Art (A. 1979.2.17)

“I thought of displacement and I didn’t want to just deal with war,” curator and MOIFA research associate Martha Manier said. Manier has been working on the subject for 10 years, most recently publishing “Sewing Their Stories, Telling Their Lives: Embroidered Narratives from Chile to the World Stage” (Humboldt State University Press, 2019).

The artworks pulse with tales of eviction, government policies, partitions, natural disasters triggered by floods, earthquakes and depletion of resources. The artists come from Chile, Pakistan, Peru, South Africa and Guatemala.

“Lanzamiento [Eviction] (arpillera), ca. 1976.” Artist Unknown. Santiago, Chile. Gift of Louise Durston. Museum of International Folk Art (A. 1979.2.16) ()

“The Train Station, (gabba) 1979,” is a chain-stitched embroidery on felted wool. It illustrates the forced migration of Kahuta, Pakistan residents after the area became a site for the national atomic bomb project in 1976. The piece bustles with modes of transportation: the train, tanks, horses and carts people used to migrate from India to Pakistan.

“Most of the people had to move out,” Manier said. “It’s sort of the Los Alamos of Pakistan. The tanks make me think of chemicals and materials brought in for the bomb project. It gives a day in the life scene, but underneath it is another context.”

“Gabba” is a type of chain stitch embroidery often done by boys as part of a United Nations project.

“El barco hundindose en alta mar [Boat Sinking on the High Seas] (bordado), 1975,” documents a family tragedy in Chile.

“The family had come north,” Manier said. “The sea life on which they depended had been depleted.”

The embroiderer’s uncle died while he was diving for false abalone and oysters. Birds soar above the boat, while fish, sea urchins and sea stars tumble in the waves. The bow dips into the sea.

“He’s falling into the arms of a large crab,” Manier said. “They’re somewhat whimsical and menacing at the same time.”

A 1979 eviction piece illustrates a different kind of Chilean trauma at a housing project begun under President Salvador Allende, then disrupted after a coup by the dictator Augusto Pinochet.

“El barco hundiéndose en alta mar [Boat Sinking on the High Seas] (bordado), 1975.” Rosa Oñate. Isla Negra, Chile. International Folk Art Foundation, Gift of Sallie Wagner. Museum of International Folk Art (FA.1976.16.63)

“The rents were on a sliding scale,” Manier said. “Some were as low as 50 cents a month. Under Pinochet they were evicted because of their political beliefs or because they couldn’t make the payments.” The peso had been devalued; there was no work.

The embroiderer sewed the story using the buttonhole stitch and appliqué. Figures carry objects, animals and a baby from the housing project.

Another Chilean textile showcases a dark political time in “Detention Center (arpillera), ca. 1978.”

“Here you see armed guards with matchstick billy clubs,” Manier said. “This was during the (Augusto) Pinochet regime. People to the left were being incarcerated.”

The hands of the guard in the upper right door drip blood. The embroidered script comes from the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights: “Every man has the right to be recognized as a human being before the law,” Manier said.

“It’s a very powerful piece.”

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