This case study, which explores a participatory textile making research project, is written by Christine Andrä and Berit Bliesemann de Guevara. To see more case studies or find out how to contribute one yourself, click here.
Title of case study project or workshop
(Un)Stitching the subjects of Colombia’s reconciliation process / (Des)tejiendo miradas sobre los sujetos en proceso de reconciliación en Colombia
Name(s) of researcher(s) and university affiliation, if any
Christine Andrä, Aberystwyth University
Beatriz Arias Lopez, University of Antioquia (PI – Colombia)
Berit Bliesemann de Guevara, Aberystwyth University (PI – UK)
Gray Yuliet Ceballos, University of Antioquia
Laura Coral Velásquez
Elsa Pilar Parra
Berena Torres Marín, University of Antioquia
Jessica Valencia, University of Antioquia
Context for research
Research project supported by Colciencias, Colombia (project reference FP44842-282-2018) and Newton Fund, UK (project reference AH/R01373X/1) and hosted by Aberystwyth University, the University of Antioquia and the Association of Victims and Survivors of Northeast Antioquia.
When did the research take place?
August 2018 – April 2021
Disciplinary background(s) of the researcher(s)
International politics, nursing, social anthropology, plastic arts, history, education, psychology
Aims of research
Through narrative and textile conversations, our project explores the under-studied life trajectories of former Colombian guerrilla fighters and brings their multi-layered autobiographical stories into dialogue with dominant public narratives.
On the one hand, we seek to understand and analyse the changing subjectivities of ex-members of the now demobilised guerrilla group FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo), their families and their new neighbours in the places where they are now living. How do former guerrillas, their supporters and victims (re-)narrate their lives in order to live on and live together?
On the other hand, our project aims to counter the one-dimensional public narrative, dominant in the Colombian media and among urban (and often less war-affected) populations, which defines the ex-guerrillas in predominantly negative terms – as enemies, terrorists, delinquents –, and thereby to contribute in a modest way to ongoing peace efforts in Colombia.
Description of research method
During so far twelve months of fieldwork in San José de León and Llano Grande, two rural communities in the Colombian department of Antioquia, we conducted monthly collective textile-making workshops with former FARC fighters, their families and local community members. These workshops formed part of a qualitative-interpretive methodology which, based on the idea of “narrative practices” (White/Epston 1990), also included biographical interviews, ethnographic fieldwork, public textile exhibitions, and reflexive practices of the research team.
The workshops introduced participants to textile work and embroidery stitches. Participants were provided with materials (hoops, cloth, threads, needles) and invited to embroider stories from their lives/biographies which they would like other Colombians to know.
To date, more than 100 embroideries have been produced, which we coded according to emergent themes and collated into twelve textile books. These books have been exhibited in the two project communities as well as in Apartadó and Medellín. We also ran workshops at the exhibitions, community organizations and the University of Antioquia, at which participants produced textile responses to the original textile pieces. Further planned exhibitions and workshops in Colombia and the UK had to be postponed due to Covid-19, but we are working on an online exhibition and an illustrated book instead.
Why did you choose to use this method?
The textile workshops were intended to encourage discussions around our participants’ life experiences: by providing spaces and opportunities for discussions that otherwise did not exist in the communities we worked with; by offering an alternative, non-textual way of narrating personal and often highly emotional experiences that can be difficult to put into words; by “keeping the hands busy” as participants reflected on and shared these experiences; and by producing tangible results authored by the participants, and in which participants took pride.
Moreover, the textiles produced in the workshops could relatively easily be shared with other members of the Colombian society who are not usually exposed to the (life) stories these textiles narrate. The resonance created by these textile stories is evidenced not least in the textile responses they received.
What did you learn from the research process?
We learned about many themes in the lives of our participants: stories of journeys, nostalgias and rural roots, family reunions, trust-building and transformation processes, commitments to the peace process, and hopes for and uncertainties about the future. While some of these themes are shared with other members of Colombian society, others are specific to the experience of having to redefine oneself and one’s life after spending many years or even decades in the guerrilla.
We also learned how surprising and moving these life stories were for many visitors of our exhibitions. At a time when dominant discourses about former FARC members frequently portray them as inhuman and positive hopes associated with the peace process are largely stalled, the textiles’ stories have given many exhibition visitors a renewed faith that peace can be achieved after all.
“The design is because […] you always hear that the guerrilleros are inhuman, that we are demons […] they paint us as monsters. Well, the war had its faults, […] but this does not mean that we are somehow different, inhuman, no?” Jhonatan, former FARC fighter, maker of the embroidery shown below.
“Every stitch is another step that helps, and it’s a change.” Jhonatan, former FARC fighter, maker of the embroidery shown below.
“You always have this view, this perspective that is so narrow that is… there are people who are just bad people, who are damaging this country […] And now, seeing this project, I believe that […] there are people who want to make a change, who are ready, […] and that they… they really deserve the opportunity to be with us.” Yeraldine, student at the University of Antioquia, after visiting a project presentation and workshop.
Our textile approach is inspired by textile practices for peace in Latin America and elsewhere, for instance arpilleras(Agosín 2008) and embroidered handkerchiefs (House 2019), as well as by feminist literature on textiles and politics (Bryan-Wilson 2017; Parker 2010).
Different projects under the theme “mental health, community care and rurality, Faculty of Nursing, Universidad de Antioquia, Colombia (e.g., Arias 2017); “Stitched Voices”, exhibition of conflict and protest textiles (Andrä et al. 2019).
Initial methodological reflections on our project: https://stitchedvoices.wordpress.com/2019/08/15/biographical-narratives-and-textile-art-colombia/
An overview of textiles and textile projects for peace: https://stitchedvoices.wordpress.com/2020/03/19/textile-efforts-for-peace/
Agosín, M. (2008). Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love: The Arpillera Movement in Chile.Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Andrä, C., Bliesemann de Guevara, B., Cole, L., & House, D. (2019). Knowing Through Needlework: Curating the Difficult Knowledge of Conflict Textiles. Critical Military Studies, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/23337486.2019.1692566.
Arias Lopez, B. (2017) Entre-tejidos y Redes. Recursos estratégicos de cuidado de la vida y promoción de la salud mental en contextos de sufrimiento social. Prospectiva. Revista de Trabajo Social e Intervención Social23: 51-72.
Bryan-Wilson, J. (2017). Fray: Art and Textile Politics, 1970s-1990s.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
House, D. (2019). In Search of Presence: Disappearance and Memory in Mexico. PhD Thesis, Aberystwyth University.
Parker, R. (2010). The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. 3rd, revised ed. London: I.B. Tauris.
White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. New York: W.W. Norton.