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December 16, 2021, Adrian, Michigan – Hanging on the walls of the INAI Art Gallery adjacent to Weber Retreat and Conference Center is a variety of colorful textile works of art created by women from Peru. The women used embroidery and appliqued pieces of cotton and other materials, Cuadros, to tell the stories of their lives – fraught with hardship from economic turmoil, poverty, civil strife, and oppression – in Pamplona Alta, Peru. The exhibit of the women’s Cuadros is open to the public through Sunday, February 27, 2022.
But beneath the stories of the women’s struggles is yet another story: how Sister Barbara Cervenka, OP, visited Pamplona Alta, came to know the women, and shared their stories by exhibiting their Cuadros throughout the United States.
Sister Barbara – herself an artist – became acquainted with Cuadros when her friend, Sister Pam Millenbach, OP, began ministering in Peru in 1982 and brought home samples. “I thought they were OK,” Sister Barbara recalled. “I kind of liked them.”
Sister Barbara became more familiar with the Cuadros, the women who created them, and the situation in Peru when, in 1989, she finally accepted Sister Pam’s invitation to visit her and Sister Mary K. Duwelius, OP. “Pam and Mary K. were great,” she said. “Not only did I go around where they were working, but they took me to museums, so I learned about the history, which was fascinating.”
Sister Barbara left Peru with a suitcase full of Cuadros and held her first exhibit of them at the University of Michigan, where she was teaching art. She returned in 1991 to help close the Sisters’ house when illness forced Sister Mary K. to return to the United States. “I thought that was the last time I’d be able to go there,” she said.
But in the mid-1990s, Sister Barbara was invited to accompany Sister Helen Battle, CSJ, then President of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Kalamazoo, Michigan, during her trip to Peru. Sister Barbara went on to Pamplona Alta to buy Cuadros to take back to the United States and, through interviews and visits, came to know the women who created them.
“I got to know the women as people,” she said. “These are really smart, amazing women. Their stories have a kind of resonance and an ability to share their history and culture in a way that is instructive for us.” Many of the women have been part of an original group that have made Cuadros for 30 or 40 years to earn a living. Some have also left that group and formed family groups, teaching the art to their daughters.
Sister Barbara said the art of making textile pieces to tell stories came from Chile, where the people suffered under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who in 1973 overthrew President Salvador Allende. Living in shanty towns with no work, the women formed workshops to create handcrafts and earn money. Eventually some started to create Arpilleras out of cloth to tell the stories of their suffering.
When Arpilleras made their way to Peru, the women there began to make their own versions, the Cuadros, to tell their own stories and to earn a living. “All along, there have always been pieces that women made to sell,” Sister Barbara said. “That’s part of the heritage of women.”
Sister Barbara praised the skill of the women who continued for years practicing this art form – and the beauty of the Cuadros. “They are so precise,” she said. Through pieces of cloth or other materials, they depict animals, pieces of fruit, and other small replicas of daily life.
Connecting people in the United States to the art and lives of people in Latin America has been a major part of Sister Barbara’s ministry. In 2000, she and Dr. Marion “Mame” Jackson started Con/Vida, a non-profit organization that connects North Americans to the popular works of art of Brazil and Peru. Sister Barbara has traveled frequently to Brazil and Peru to bring back examples of folk art to be exhibited in the United States.
Prominent among these works of art are the Cuadros. In 10 years, Sister Barbara said, she has traveled to about 50 places to exhibit the Cuadros and, when possible, to sell them and send the money to the women in Peru.
Sister Barbara hopes that many people will come to the exhibit at INAI to experience the beauty of the Cuadros. “I’d like people to appreciate and understand the kind of amazing work of these women, who live in very simple circumstances. They’ve lived good lives and have used their skill to continue doing work that is beautiful … and creative. They’ve shown the kind of richness and creativity that can come from the simplest of circumstances.”
INAI (in-EYE) is a Japanese word meaning within. INAI, a place for quiet reflection and art, is open to the public. The INAI Gallery is adjacent to Weber Retreat and Conference Center, 1257 E. Siena Heights Drive, on the campus of the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Motherhouse. Enter the Eastern-most driveway of the complex and follow the signs to Weber Center.
Gallery hours are from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. daily or by appointment. Masks are required, and guests must be screened for COVID-19 at the Weber Center reception desk or Weber Center Shop. Please call 517-266-4090 or 313-608-9181 for an appointment to visit the gallery.