Looking over the pieces on display at El Museo del Barrio, I was struck by a couple different observations setting the current Testimonios: 100 Years of Popular Expression exhibit apart from most other museum exhibits I’ve seen. The first striking element was that while many drawings and paintings were featured presumably for the incredible skill with which they were created, numerous sculptures and tapestries had what initially appeared to be a very arts-and-crafts homemade feel to them. Interestingly enough, though, that handmade quality added a surprising and refreshing level of humanity to the pieces, making them some of the most powerful ones in the exhibit.
An entire room is dedicated to Chilean arpilleras. These arpilleras are hand-sewn fabric pictures depicting poor civilian life during times of war (these specific ones are from the 1980s), showing what happened to the community, and how things kept running day-to-day while their loved ones were out fighting. Here, my focus was not drawn to incredible refined skill, but instead, the undeniable poetry in fabric form. These are pictures of civilians working to maintain their shantytowns. The fabric composing those pictures is made up of clothing left behind by the community members who were out fighting, suggesting that those soldiers were integral to the fabric of their society. They are a base component that makes up the towns, and it is partially to honor them that the remaining civilians so diligently maintain their society, saving a place for them to come back to. The next layer of symbolism in these pieces is in the fact that the content depicts day-to-day work to help run the town, but the arpilleras, themselves, serve a purpose in helping the town run. They are commodities that bring in a big portion of the revenue for towns like that, so creating these pictures is in fact one of the functions of running the town.
There is artistic power in the untrained nature of the art featured in this exhibit. The very quality that made me momentarily question their placement in a museum setting at all quickly turned into something more compelling than I’ve seen in a museum in a long time. That concept ties in to the mission statement of the Testimonios exhibit, which is about examining “potent works by non-traditionally trained makers.” There is an irrepressible element of humanity that makes this exhibit so life-affirming, even when some of the pieces depict hardship. It stems through every single piece (even the more skillfully-executed ones), and shows us that though the human experience can be unimaginably trying at times and can look different for different cultures, we share a common humanity that really is a thing of beauty.
Columbia University Arts Initiative