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Interview: Erika Diettes on Silencios, Drifting Away & Sudarios - Part I

Installation of Erika Diettes' Sudarios at Iglesia Santa Clara, Bogota

Colombian photographer Erika Diettes’ work is about bearing witness and reconciling memory. She has photographed survivors of Nazi concentrations camps who escaped death to find a new home in her native country and allowed those sitters to express thoughts regarding their journeys. Many expressed the desire to not let this happen again and thus they participate in recalling harsh memories from the past. Diettes’ later projects, Rio Abajo (Drifting Away) and Sudarios symbolically represent those killed in the long-running armed conflict in Colombia with, respectively, the clothing of the disappeared floating in water and the closely-cropped faces of women who witnessed autrocities first-hand, often the death of a beloved family member. Diettes' work deals with difficult issues, but her touch is so delicate and her work so respectful as to not be heavy-handed or overtly political. The photographs make powerful exhibitions, but have also each been presented as stunning photobooks.

Erika Diettes is an artist-in-residence for CENTER’s Artist Labs and on the occasion of her exhibition at the chapel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Retreat Center, home of CENTER offices, I welcomed the opportunity to visit with Diettes during the installation of the show and talk with her about her work. Part two of our conversation will be featured next week. -- Melanie McWhorter


Melanie McWhorter:     You have worked on some very intense projects in your home country of Colombia. There is a evident relationship of victims of conflict and their struggle to make peace with what happened and the struggle between trying not to forget, but not letting the events rule your waking moments. First, I would like to start with your first book project Silencios on WWII Jewish emigrants in Colombia. How did you conceive of this project? How do you see that Silencios has contributed to the two related projects Sudarios and Drifting Away?

Erika Diettes:     Silencios, I thought about this project because my husband, Joseph Kaplan, is Jewish I got to know the Jewish community through my relationship with him. We got married and I sort of got immersed into the Jewish community. But then his grandmother died, her name was Ruth Rosenberg, and when she died we were cleaning the house, helping with her stuff, and I found this very interesting photo, it looked like a very contemporary photo because of the way the picture was framed. So I asked "What is this image of?" and it was Joseph's grandparents coming from Germany to Colombia and that's when I realized, "Wow, this is so interesting, we should look for survivors of the Second World War here in Colombia." You have to understand that the Jewish community in Colombia is really small, so it's not like we were aware that there were Auschwitz survivors or Buchenwald survivors -- that was something totally new for me. So I started this journey of getting to know the survivors, and I ended up collecting the stories of 30 survivors that lived in our country. So that was a very big interesting project because most of us were not aware of them being in Colombia. So I think that was fascinating for me. It ended up being my first book; there was a huge opening in a spectacular place. We had the exhibition at one of the first movies theaters built in Colombia that was abandoned. So it was a spectacular installation, and we had the show in different cities also. You know, I think at the time I was not really aware of what it really meant to have these testimonies, it was really just the perfect time to do it.

from Silencios by Erika Diettes

MM:     Because a lot of them have passed away?

ED:     Now -- after the project -- many of them have passed away. So it was a way to have their testimony and honor their lives through this book. Also I think, to answer the second part of your question, how this contributed to the other projects, I think it was the first time that I ever faced first-hand witnesses of such a horror. When you get to meet somebody who had to go through a horrible thing like Auschwitz, when you have somebody telling you that they saw the gas chambers, that they saw these piles of corpses, when you are in front of that person it is extremely powerful, and it gives you the sense of what violence does to people. You see their eyes, and I think that's the very intensity of this project is that you see their eyes and you know they saw something that is impossible to put in words. We know so much about the Second World War, we've seen so many movies, you can read the books, you can see the movies, you can see the documentaries, and really nothing captures the tiniest part of what they saw. This project was the beginning of me working with the witnesses and the victims. So I think that's the importance of that particular project.

MM:     Why did a lot of them end up in Colombia specifically?

ED:     Some of them had family there, so they were invited by their families. If I don't remember wrong, two of them got left in Colombia, they were going somewhere else and couldn't finish the journey so they sort of stayed in Colombia. And those are fascinating stories.  I remember this particular man, when I met him he was 97 and he said, "I don't consider myself to be 97. I always count the beginning of my life as when I got to this country. I think I'm 60-something."

MM:     He said he was 58.

ED:     Yes, thank you! I love that story because it tells you how you become part of some other country and how you really think and rebuild your life. So I think that Silencios is a book that holds the testimonies of such horror, but also the rebirth of many of these families, so it's not only about the horror but about how life goes on. I think that's the importance of that book.

from Silencios by Erika Diettes

MM:     Drifting Away (Rio Abajo) and Sudarios are sister projects, each being an exhibition and book project relating to the victims of violence in Colombia. Drifting Away contains portraits of the victims of the violence in absentia represented by one article of clothing and Sudarios shows closely cropped photographs of women who lost family members in the violence in the area of Antioquia, home of the city of MedellĂ­n. How are both of these projects related? Were some of the women in Sudarios those that you interviewed for Drifting Away?

from Drifting Away (Rio Abajo) by Erika Diettes
ED:     I always see -- and that can start from Silencios in a way I think -- that my work is about grieving. The entire theme that crosses all my work, that is the same within all the projects, is grieving and mourning and loss. Even though you see these different bodies of work that you would imagine would start in one point and end up in another, it's just part of the same-- suspended in the same thing, they just take different visual forms. So I think in Drifting Away, it's the same violence that I'm talking about. Drifting Away has a particular theme, which is the desaparecidos, the disappeared, and I chose to represent that absence through their clothing. Obviously I was not able to photograph them, so an object represents them, an object that takes the place of the person who is missing. I think one thing that is really important to understand about the clothing and objects that the families keep is that they actually take the place of the disappeared in the home. Some of these objects go through certain rituals. For example, there was this woman who told me every time it's the birthday of her son she takes out the shirt, she washes it in a very special way, she irons it, she puts it back in the closet. They go through this intensity of really representing -- I use the word representing, representation literally -- making the absence disappear with this object; this is the sacredness of those objects. And I also chose to do a literal representation of one of the ways that they disappear the bodies of people, tossing the bodies into the river, which is why the project is called Rio Abajo. And I think [Rio Abajo and Sudarios] are related in the sense that both of these works represent the absence of somebody. In the Drifting Away case it is the clothing, in the Sudarios case, it is the face of the person grieving the person who is no longer here with us. So it is the absence that I'm trying to capture, represented in different ways. Sudarios is obviously about the violence; it is a very particular thing being witness to that violence, being forced by the guerillas, the paramilitary or the armed forces to see the killing of their family members, to be forced to open your eyes in front of the massacre of your mother, to be forced to open your eyes because the perpetrators tell them:  "Open your eyes, you have to see." When you see these portraits you see that violence being executed in front of them, but what you see is the terrible pain of losing that person in front of your eyes. So I think that the [projects] are related in the sense that yes, here you see the survivor, in the other project you see the clothing that represents [the person], but what you actually are seeing and feeling is the loss and the pain of having somebody who is very close to your heart killed. So I think besides the literal representation what you're experiencing is a memory honoring space to those who are no longer here. Some of the women who are portrayed in Sudarios are in the families of the Rio Abjo project, so I've been working with the same community very closely for many years now. That relationship allows me to be able to represent and be so close to them that I can give different visual form to their loss.

Sudarios installation in Australia

MM:     How did you find them?

ED:     Through different journeys. I started visiting for the Rio Abajo project, it was the first time I went to this region and I visited the victims organizations, different victims organizations, and I would introduce myself and say I am an artist and I'm interested in doing this project and it was this mutual trust-- imagine what I just told you about the objects of the Rio Abajo project, these are sacred objects, this is the only thing they have, because they don't even have the body of their son to bury. So imagine just an artist from Bogota coming and saying, "Lend me those clothes." It took really high courage and trust from them because I needed to travel with the clothing back to Bogota where my studio is located because those images were shot in a very controlled studio environment; I needed to build a pool in my studio, it could not be improvised. I had to go back to my house, photograph and then go back and give back the objects. So I think what helped the true dimension of that project is my commitment and actually going back, returning the clothes, giving them the image that I had produced, and then over the years I also came back to that same area and had the exhibition show for them. Within the memory process that they do they sometimes have certain dates where they do a symbolic act to remember their families, so I would bring the exhibition to them and have the show with them. So that going back and fourth and really committing in an honest way to the project is really what has allowed me to pursue other projects in the community, to be engaged with my artistic practice.

from Drifting Away (Rio Abajo) by Erika Diettes

MM:     How is the work perceived in Colombia? And is there any danger as far as you or these people speaking out about things that they've seen?

Sudarios installation in Mexico
ED:     Since the work has been produced, inspired, worked and shown you have this different status within the artist practice. You need the inspiration and you have to execute the project, then sharing the results of that project with them-- they love the project because it's about honoring the memory of their loved ones. If you see the Rio Abajo images they are in a way peaceful, they are in a way soothing, they are not aggressive images; they are meant to represent the preciousness of their families, they are meant to elevate the representation of their family members to a beautiful honoring level, so people want to be part of this project because it’s a way of not leaving the memory of their loved ones in the dark. It's a way of having this symbolic funeral. If you see the exhibitions of Rio Abajo in the region the families go with candles and pray in front of the images. The purpose there is a symbolic funeral, it's really something that is not just an art show, it's something that is very powerful within the symbols. So my work has been very well received by the families, by the media, by the art critics, because I think it has the power of the memory of the lost ones. I don't see it so much as just a show for a gallery; that would have a different meaning. The work has grown and walked so many kilometers. The power comes from the grieving and from the love of the families to their family members. It's like it's something bigger than just a representation. It has the power of the community, it has the power of the memory and the love of the people that also take the time to go where I am, to take the memory of that loved one and allow that memory to be part of this big symbolic space. It is also a journey for me because I have to travel away from home, they also have to travel away from home and we sort of meet in the middle and in the middle is the art. We are sort of collaborating. So I think it's very powerful and it's very well accepted. I've had major exhibitions in major museums but not just for the sake of it, it's because Colombia is in a very important stage in its history; we're trying to find the truth, we're trying to put this violence behind us. I mean, it's a process but I think the memory and representing what has happened is really important in the history of the country and I think art can serve that purpose.

cover of Sudarios by Erika Diettes
To answer your second question, I have visited areas that I had never imagined going. I have visited areas where conflict has happened. It's safer now, yes. I think a couple of years ago I would not have been able to go to these areas, I mean, it would have been impossible. Now it's safer, but it doesn't mean that the conflict is over, it doesn't mean that the people from the region are not threatened. I think it definitely takes them a lot of courage to be part of these projects. It's a way to make visible what has happened. I think we are on the edge of that in Colombia; we want to make it visible. I think it's just a question of ethics. I respect and I value and I am extremely serious about what information I use, what information I talk about out loud. I know every single testimony behind the images I have created, the clothing that's represented in Rio Ajabo, but I made the decision to not share that information because I really don't know what that would mean for the people of the region. It would be easy for me to travel to Houston or Buenos Aires and say this shirt belonged to this person, from this area and I just know that it's not the purpose of the work and that is extremely serious information. There are some people who I know that are very open with it and those are the names that I share because I do have their permission and I do know that they are going to be OK because it's part of their political quest, but I try to keep the work as apolitical as I can. Again, my work is about grieving and about loss. It is not about the Colombia conflict only, it is not about trying to figure out who killed who, it's not about trying to blame a political group or an armed group; for me it's about representing and honoring the pain of these women and honoring the memory of the victims.


The second part of Melanie McWhorter's interview with Erika Diettes will be published next week. Diettes' installation of Sudarios will be on view at the chapel of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Retreat Center through October 24th with an artist talk at 7:30 on Friday October 18th.

Copies of Diettes' books, Silencios, Drifting Away (Rio Abajo) and Sudarios are available at photo-eye Bookstore.