Suspended grief

Pho­tog­ra­pher Erika Di­ettes’ me­mento mori for Colom­bia’s dis­ap­peared

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Drift­ing Away

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


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

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