Photographer Erika Diettes’ memento mori for Colombia’s disappeared
In advance of the Oct. 2 historic vote for peace between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Santa Fe University of Art and Design presents Drifting Away/Río Abajo, an exhibit of works by Colombian photographer Erika Diettes. Her images deal with themes of memory and grief around the armed conflict in her home country, a war between guerrilla forces, paramilitary groups, crime lords, and the government that has raged for more than half a century. Diettes photographs the objects that remain of those that have been “disappeared,” whose fates remain unknown to their families, along with the faces of the survivors, eyewitnesses to atrocities committed during the conflict. On the cover is a photograph of her 2014 installation Sudarios (Shrouds) at a Jesuit chapel in Poznań, Poland, courtesy the artist.
IN Colombia, the ominous sight of vultures along riverbanks alerts people to the presence of human remains — evidence of atrocities committed during the area’s armed conflict. Sometimes the remains — all that is left of people who have been disappeared — are identified, but most often they are not, and families of victims never learn what happened to their loved ones. “The families are submerged in an eternal grieving process, because you’re not going to grieve for someone who you’re not really sure is dead,” Colombian photographer Erika Diettes told Pasatiempo. “One of the ways they disappear the bodies is, after they’ve been tortured, they’re chopped into little pieces and tossed into the rivers. It’s a very cynical and cruel way of murdering someone, because clearly the intention is not only to kill them, but to disappear any trace of their identity.”
Since the mid-1960s, Colombia has been embroiled in a bitter war between the government, paramilitary groups, guerilla groups, and organized crime syndicates. Left-wing guerillas such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), formed in 1964 as an anti-imperialist group, resorted to kidnapping, extortion, and murder. Paramilitary organizations responsible for the largest number of deaths in the conflict targeted political opponents and, in some instances, massacred entire towns during ethnic cleansing programs. As recently as 2006, thousands of murders were occurring in Colombia every year due to the conflict, and thousands of people have been forced from their homes and displaced.
Diettes, whose exhibition Drifting Away/Río Abajo opens Friday, Sept. 16, at the Marion Center for Photographic Arts, has experienced firsthand the trauma suffered by victims and their families. Her uncle was killed by the guerillas, a fact the family learned while watching the news. Her father, who served as a brigadier general in La Policía Nacional from 1991 to 1996, a peak time for the violence, was a target of the drug lord Pablo Escobar. “We were always threatened,” she said. “Violence has always been there. It’s what I know as normal. My thesis in anthropology was actually about how we found out about my uncle’s murder. It was traumatic because of the way we found out. That was my subject. I decided to study how the representation of violence can affect the grieving process.”
Diettes’ photographs are the subject of a recent book, Memento Mori: Testament to Life, published by George F. Thompson, that comprises imagery from three bodies of work: Río Abajo, images of clothing of the disappeared, photographed in water;
Sudarios (or Shrouds), portraits of women who have witnessed atrocities; and Relicarios, mementos and personal items of victims embedded in polymer resin. “My uncle’s body was shot with 20 bullets. That happened when I was seventeen years old. Maybe that moment when the violence hit our family — crossing that boundary where the news is no longer somebody else’s news but your own — is the moment where I had the intuition to work with this subject matter.”
The clothes photographed as part of Drifting Away were loaned to Diettes by the families of victims. “Those objects belong to the person that is missing. They keep those objects, not to remember them — the mother of a disappeared boy is never going to forget him — but to occupy their space in the promise of a future return.” Diettes’ work honors the victims of violence. The water is a critical component. “The main inspiration for was the idea of the rivers of Colombia being among the biggest graveyards in the world,” she said. “I use the water in two ways: One is the idea that water may be the final recipient of that body. But when I use clear water and photograph it in this beautiful, peaceful way, it’s to metaphorically
THE MAIN INSPIRATION FOR DRIFTING AWAY WAS THE IDEA OF THE RIVERS OF COLOMBIA BEING AMONG THE BIGGEST GRAVEYARDS IN THE WORLD. — Erika Diettes
bring peace to that soul. The objects floating in this crystal water sort of have that look of a sacred image. It’s a way to hold and give peace to that memory. They are not going to find the body. They will not hold a proper burial.”
Being disappeared, a characteristic component of the armed conflict, has an insidious secondary purpose: to extend victimhood to families who are rarely, if ever, given closure. “To disappear someone is also to deprive families of the funeral rituals and the ability to say goodbye and to bury someone and say, ‘This life has ended,’ in a physical and legal way. Deep down, you know that person was murdered, but you cannot accept it because you have to see the body. To disappear someone is a bigger punishment for everyone in society. The disappearances take away that need of the family to be recognized publicly as a mourning family. Ileana Diéguez, who wrote the essay in Memento Mori, calls that ‘suspended grieving.’ It’s something that doesn’t start, and because it doesn’t start, it will never end. It’s like sitting in a fog the rest of your life.”
Diettes, whose background is in journalism as well as photography, studied anthropology after working on her first major project, Silencios, portraits of Jews who fled the Holocaust to rebuild their lives in Colombia. “It’s sort of strange because Colombia was not an open country like Argentina has been, or Brazil. Here, the immigration was very small. After I created this body of work, I decided to do my master’s degree in anthropology because I felt the need to be able to investigate in a deeper way.”
The work in Memento Mori is apolitical, nonpartisan, and focused on survivors of a war that has claimed victims on all sides. “A complicated part of the Colombian armed conflict is that you can’t really tell whose side is good,” she said. “There’s all these gray areas.”
But the war in Colombia may be seeing its final days. On Oct. 2, a nationwide vote determines whether or not the Colombian government and FARC will continue to work toward peace and reconciliation. President Juan Manuel Santos’ historic accord calls for the dismantlement of FARC and its reorganization into an unarmed political organization. Peace with the guerilla group, which has been loathed and feared by the Colombian people for decades, is a hard sell, but the accord, which the public appears to overwhelmingly favor, is expected to pass. “The government and the guerillas have reached a point where the peace process is happening. The word ‘peace’ is on everyone’s mind. It’s a very delicate moment. The war has been going on for 52 years, and now, for the first time, there’s a real possibility of ending it. It’s a historic time in Colombia.”
Erika Diettes: Drifting Away/Río Abajo Reception 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16; exhibit through Jan. 14, 2017 Marion Center for Photographic Arts, Santa Fe University of Art and Design, 1600 St. Michael’s Drive, 505-473-6341 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, talk and book signing with Diettes and New Mexico Museum of Art curator of photography Kate Ware, Tipton Hall, SFUAD campus Río Abajo #8, 2008, digital photograph printed on glass