In February 2019 I made my way up to London on a bitterly cold but bright day to visit The Gallery of Everything; a pilgrimage to this tiny temple of Outsider Art – a genre of art that I adore for its raw expression and unbridled courage. The exhibition featured the work of Belarusian artist Olga Frantkevick, starkly beautiful textiles about her experience of growing up in conflict.
The gallery writes of her:
‘Born in the former USSR in 1937, Olga Frantskevich was a child of war, living under German occupation until the age of seven. Taught by her grandmother to sew, and lacking in paper to draw, she began to embroider on sackcloth she found at the farm where she worked to support her family and younger siblings. In her eightieth decade, Frantskevich turned again to her family’s legacy of embroidery to capture her memories and the history of the war, exhibiting her works to the public for the first time on 2007. Frantskevich’s hand-woven tapestries tell, in brightly coloured and dreamlike tableaus, the story of the war. Personal stories, of her family, of her father, the partisan hero Kuprin Serger Gavrilovich, of a daily life of suffering punctuated by mundane chores and dreams of a better life. But they also capture, and preserve for future generations, the collective experience of the war.’
Fortuitously and unbeknown to me, I would make a connection at the exhibition that would deepen by understanding of stitching and conflict over the coming months. Roberta Bacic, a Chilean curator, human rights activist and Founder of Conflict Textiles who is currently living on Northern Ireland’s rugged Atlantic coastline, was present to give a talk about her collection of arpilleras. These evocative pieces are brightly coloured patchwork textile pictures made predominantly by groups of women, also known as arpilleristas. The construction of arpilleras became popular in Chile during the military dictatorship (1973–90) of Augusto Pinochet. With each piece containing a strong narrative thread, the women used them to tell the stories of the ‘disappeared’ – loved ones who had been taken by Pinochet’s cruel regime. Bacic has brought the arpillera tradition to Northern Ireland and other countries that have suffered conflict; holding exhibitions and workshops that invite local people to make their own stitched stories of war.
I was hugely excited to learn that Roberta lives just 10 miles or so from the town in which I was born, and I immediately contacted her to ask if she would meet with me during my summer visit. So kind and accommodating, she immediately invited me to her home for conversation and viewing of some of her collection. I was moved to tears by some of the imagery. Seventy years young, Roberta is filled with a vitality and passion about her field and travels the world, dedicated to furthering her work. I asked her why she had so readily agreed to see me and she simply replied, 'When someone shows such interest I feel it is a duty to respond.'
I am delighted to be returning to Limavady, Northern Ireland to see Roberta in action for her exhibition 'Embracing Human Rights: Conflict Textiles' Journey' at Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre in March 2020 where I will have the honour of working alongside arpilleriastas from Spain, with the chance to learn more about the rich history of stitch in conflict.
Meantime the experience of meeting Roberta and benefitting from her wealth of knowledge leaves me astounded by the ability of the human spirit to express itself in any way possible through the most astounding of atrocities. It is deeply encouraging to witness how art can have such a profound and healing influence in these troubled times.
Roberta has a small selection of her collection on display at Ulster Museum, and you can find out more about her work: