Review: Erika Diettes, "Sudarios"

Installation view of Erika Diettes' Sudarios, Iglesia El Señor de las Misericordias, Medellín. © Margarita Valdivieso

On October 25th, Bogotá-based visual artist Erika Diettes opened her traveling installation project Sudarios at Iglesia El Señor de las Misericordias in barrio Manrique, Medellín. The work has previously been shown in Houston, Santo Domingo, Bogotá, Buenos Aires and other cities. Sudarios is the Spanish word for "shroud."

The installation consists of twenty large-scale portraits printed on silk shrouds hung in the nave of the church. The women were photographed while retelling their stories of being forced to witness violence against their loved ones, a common practice during Colombia's civil conflict, and also - importantly - their life afterwards. The women are photographed in black and white, cropped just below the shoulders, eyes closed, unclothed. The images are approximately four and a half feet wide by seven and a half feet tall.

An audio interview, in Spanish, about the project can be found here under "Octubre 21." Diettes also talked about the work recently on Lenscratch and an audio interview between her and Jim Casper, Editor of Lens Culture, can be found here.

Diettes installed Sudarios under the auspices of the Museo de Antioquia. The work echoes the symmetry of Manrique's spectacular church. The translucent silk portraits hang in opposing pairings or centered along the axis of the nave at varying heights. Some are hung low enough for visitors to touch or caress the silk, part of the artist's intention. The portraits face the main entrance to the church. Her craftsmanship is exceptional.

Sudarios continues Diettes' explorations along the thematic lines of violence, suffering, and pain of Colombia's seemingly endless internal conflicts. These lines are extended from her previous projects, Rio abajo and A punta de sangre. Sudarios is the most realized of the trilogy in its double-sided treatment of these themes: the women depicted speak of the horrors witnessed as well as life after serving as witness to unthinkable human darkness.

This conceptual shift towards balancing horror with survival (or death with life) allows the project to move from respectful witness to active agent in terms of reframing Colombia's narrative and its violence inside its new historical moment of personal healing, international reconnection, increased security and stability, and plummeting murder rates. In short: Sudarios doesn't define Colombia and its people strictly through history and violence, but also through the future and healing, providing a more complete picture of the cycle of violence in Colombian society as the society continues to move towards a new era.

Diettes' work has received international acclaim and with reason. The large faces, frozen in the middle of describing personal traumas, float in the church as transcendent beings, neither completely of this world nor the next. At the inauguration, with the main church doors open, the silk shrouds shifted and moved in the evening breeze, bringing the women breath and animation, a sensation doubled by the translucence of the silk that allows light to permeate the portraits.

The movement, the light, and the silk balance the geometry of the formal square of the portraits as well as the architectural symmetry of the church. The size of the images and their placement at points of passage through the nave gives a sense of confrontation, but the subjects have closed or averted their eyes, are unclothed, and are in obvious emotional states of openness and vulnerability - any idea of confrontation becomes empathy instead.

The decisions to move this work off the walls as well as into alternative spaces are fundamental to the power of the project. I walked away, however, with lingering questions about the installation and particularly of the space chosen to show the work. On the whole they are minor and don't detract significantly from the work.

If Diettes unclothed the women to equalize and democratize their stories by eliminating clothing as signifiers of class, what about the varying heights of hanging the portraits? Height - especially in a Catholic church - creates hierarchy. I also wondered if the project was best served by shaping the installation to the symmetry of the church and the readings that could entail. Lastly, the height, light, and air of the church is vital to the work. Diettes has spoken in interviews about the importance of the sacredness of the church in relation to the sacredness of the pain these women have witnessed, as well as of the importance of the change in disposition when we enter a church and how that shapes how we approach her work. That being said, arguments could be mounted against churches as the vehicle for this work.

Church leaders have long been rumored as being involved in La Violencia in Colombia and of encouraging the murder of the political opposition. The church also brings with it a long history of violence and oppression more generally - from the crusades to heretic burnings to the Inquisition. This is far from a neutral space in terms of violence. It is also obviously symbolically hyper-charged, and while Diettes can point to elements of the church space and experience to support its choice as a venue for this installation - reverence, reflection, solemnity - other elements could be pointed to that compete with its intended themes - patriarchy, power, authority.

Installation view of Erika Diettes' Sudarios, Iglesia El Señor de las Misericordias, Medellín. © Margarita Valdivieso

Sudarios is definitively the best show I've seen this year in the city, although I have to add that the photography exhibitions in Medellín are few and generally by photographers of less experience. I hope this show continues to establish Medellín on the international photography map and that the Museo de Antioquia will continue to invest in bringing in photography shows.

Diettes continues to establish herself along with Stephen Ferry as the two most recognized Colombian-based photographers internationally. Their work deserves the recognition.

I have to make a final point, however, that goes beyond their work and that is not intended as a criticism of either. Their projects, collectively focused on Colombia's violent history, are currently in the international eye and I understand that Diettes has a very personal tie to the subject matter, having discovered the murder of an uncle while watching television during Medellín's era as the most violent city in the world. The violence also continues here in Colombia and continues to affect individual lives in terrible ways. Yesterday ten campesinos were massacred twenty miles north of Medellín. That being said, violence in Colombia has dropped massively during the last two decades; Medellín's murder rate, for example, has dropped over 90% since the 1990's.

I continue to personally wait for international-caliber projects in Colombia that move beyond the singular, thin narrative of Colombia as violence to show other dimensions of a fascinating country. Do Diettes' projects continue to cement the equation of violence and Colombia internally and internationally? It could be argued they do, despite how Sudarios addresses life after violence. Her work is strong, however, and projects addressing the history of the country are necessary and important both as document and as part of a healing process. Perhaps what's needed, then, is the hope that other projects equal in strength arrive that paint more dimensions of the country to balance with her work and Ferry's Violentology.