Carolyn Mount: Your work, largely based in photography, sculpture, and installation, deals with loss, grief, and memory. Can you tell us about your background and history and what led you to want to study these subjects?
Erika Diettes: I am a Colombian visual artist. I studied visual arts with an emphasis in audio visual expression. I also studied social communications at the Pontificia Universidad de Javeriana in Bogotá. I decided a couple of years later to study in a master’s program in Antropología Social at Los Andes University also in Bogotá.
As a child and teenager, I experienced the normal lifestyle of being the daughter of a general of police in a country that has been dealing with an inner conflict for over fifty years. Colombia, despite signing a peace treaty with one of the main guerrilla groups four years ago, is a country that was built and is still standing on an outrageous violence.
Art is about life, about the life that surrounds its creator. Hers or his past, hers or his present and dreams, illusions, and nightmares. In Colombia and in most Latin American countries life develops in the midst of war. That means, sadly, trauma from outrageous violence is part of our common understanding. Being part of a country like mine means understanding the contrast of the most generous and wealthy territory and the disparity of resources for its people.
I think that it’s very common to acknowledge Colombian artists and for that matter Latin American artists work around the subject of violence and death because it is sadly what we have lived. I try to somehow create an image of what it means to have been affected by the violence, to represent one of the most atrocious crimes in humanity: forced disappearance, and that loss—to grieve, to mourn, to remember—somehow it is the only thing that remains.
CM: How has death impacted your life? What called you to honoring the dead and those grieving their loss?
ED: The tragic assassination of my uncle Jose Alejandro Gutierrez killed more than twenty years ago by two hit man in Medellin. Learning about it on TV live as the events were happening clearly had an impact on my professional choices.
This is not a decision I made only from that horrendous tragedy. I loved photography, I wanted to stop time, to be able to capture the magic of life, I wanted to create images.
That day, the day my uncle was killed, time stopped for our family. And so it is true for many families, second by second, in countries that endure armed conflicts. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the concept of this fear can maybe be more understandable worldwide.
CM: Your work deals very clearly with honoring the dead and those grieving the lost and missing. You have said that you work at keeping memory alive. Can you speak to why this is so important?
ED: When I am confronted with the magnitude of this question, why is it important to keep memory alive?, it is undeniable to think of Tzvetan Todorov’s words about the abuses of memory. The most important thing is to understand what exactly we need to remember. What part of the traumatic experience, what version of history, and especially for what purpose do we insist (as a society) in keeping alive?
Do we remember from inherited hate the dates of a war and the number of victims? Do we just (as a society, I insist) assume nothing happened at all? Or do we acknowledge the truth of the past, of what happened, how it happened, who allowed it to happen, and transform that memory to strengthen our bonds as empathetic human beings.
Listening to hundreds of testimonies of women and men that have endured horrors, that have been able to survive indescribable violence and still are brave enough to bare witnesses of all of it leaves me with two hopes: that he or she will be able to forget even one part of all that horror; and that we (as a society) will never forget our capacity to value life in all its complexity, life as something bigger than the personal economic interests of a few people.
CM: What is fairly unique to your practice is that you make the family members and those grieving your collaborators. What led you to this process and how have you been changed through this collaboration?
ED: To be honest, it all started with the most simple, human, and for me the only logical way to approach such a delicate subject matter: to treat with the outmost respect, care, and empathy the person that I was listening to. I had to make sure all my senses were in focus to understand the words contained in the deep silences. To recognize the tension in the facial expressions. To recognize that I understand empathy not as thinking, but the process of feeling someone else’s feelings.
CM: The two bodies of work that will be featured in Ruminate Magazine Issue 58: What Remains are called “Reliquaries” and “Shrouds.” Reliquaries are sculptures where actual items belonging to missing individuals are encapsulated in a resin or polymer. Shrouds are large black-and-white portraits of women that were taken at the emotional height of them sharing their story of murdered family members. Reliquaries and still, solid objects are located on the floor of a gallery, whereas shrouds are printed on light fabric that move and almost seem to breathe and are suspended high in churches and sacred spaces. Can you speak about your approach to both these bodies of work and how the work itself informed your installation decisions?
ED: I think it is very important to understand that the core and soul of my work are life (memory) and love (grief). Life in the middle of the frozen time before and after experiencing the atrocities of violence. To face not only the loss but also the brutality of the way a loved one was tortured and killed. To not know if a person that is part of your life is alive or dead, to wait in an eternal, suspended time for that terrible truth of the confirmation of the death.
Each story, each testimony is engraved in my memory and in my heart. I know, I feel, and I remember the need and wish of each mourner and I try to elevate that intention in the most honorable way. The venues to show my work have been chosen to support that concept, to extend that aura of plea, to embrace not only the survivors of the horror but the audience as well.
With the time that has passed since my first attempt to do that, I have been lucky enough to understand that any space can become sacred because the work itself contains the voice and the hands of the mourners.
CM: Though your work has dealt with loss from a particular cultural experience and history in Colombia, in this time of global pandemic, what do you hope people gain from experiencing your work? Is there a message you hope to share through your work in this very particular time and place and history?
ED: Despite all the differences and the complexities of the causes of the never-ending wars of the world, the horror, the tragedy, the injustice, and the loss unite them. This particular moment in history reminds us more than ever of our own fragility. It is time to honor our own life, to recognize ourselves as a whole. Death has always been the only certainty we have. In a better society, dying in atrocious ways would not be a possibility. Today, we are all wishing to not die alone.
Carolyn Mount is Ruminate Magazine’s visual art editor.
Erika Diettes is a Colombian visual artist. You can view her work in the forthcoming spring issue of Ruminate Magazine, Issue 58: What Remains as well as on her website: https://www.erikadiettes.com/.
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