Tell them, tell your friends and acquaintances if you do not come back, it will be because your blood stopped and thickened at the sight of those atrocious, barbaric scenes, of the death of innocent and unprotected children of my forsaken people.
Tell them that if your heart should turn to [stone], your brain becomes a cold thinking machine and your eye transform into a camera, you will not come back again. […] Hold me tightly by the hand, do not tremble [—], because you will have to see even worse.
Rouleaux d’Auschwitz, I (1944)
The evocative portraits that comprise Sudarios, the latest body of work by the Colombian artist Erika Diettes, offer a compelling meditation on the horrors of war. Drawing on a body of work she began in 2007, Diettes travelled throughout eastern Antioquia, a region subsumed by violence, capturing the stories of women who—as a part of their own—were subjected to watching torture meted out to others.
As she photographed, the artist engaged her subjects in conversation, dialogue that vividly recalled the assassination and massacre of those closest to them: parents, spouses, siblings and children. Diettes then captured their visages—replete with emotion, their eyes closed, save one fixed in terror—at the most agonizing moment of their narratives.
In her statement Diettes writes, “How do you continue living after seeing so much pain? How can you believe in humanity, and restore your faith in life after watching such horror?” But the survivors’ real punishment, she adds, is that they are left alive to tell a story that no one will hear.
Framed primarily by issues of loss, memory and the impact of violence, Diettes’ artistic practice is as informed by personal narrative as it is by education. A social anthropologist as well as a visual artist, her book, Noticia al aire… Memoria en vivo (Bogotá: Ediciones Uniandes, 2010), relates the impact of learning of an uncle’s murder on television and how it influenced her family’s perception of his death.
Limiting her palette to black and white, Diettes forsakes the indulgence of color, printing the photographs on large, silk panels measuring over seven feet. Their length suggests other “shrouds” too: tachrichim, the traditional burial sheets used in Judaica, and the Shroud of Turin, one of Christianity’s holiest artifacts. The artist then hangs the work at varying heights allowing us to pass through, between and underneath them, complementing the images with the soft, almost inaudible recording of a woman breathing.
The women appear to float above and around us. Presenting the work in churches, Diettes elevates their burden to a spiritual one, their suffering acknowledged and dignified in that most sacred of spaces. The larger-than-life-size scale overwhelms us, as if to suggest the enormity of the violence that lay hidden behind their eyes, and like martyrs seeking redemption, their presence invites us to share in their burden. We are spared their individual horrors but, taking form in our imagination, their torment is enough to envisage our own.
And it is within this context that Sudarios is most effective. While giving them voice, Diettes’ intent is not solely to provide a forum for these twenty survivors. Hers is to remind us of the responsibility to make art in response to war; in spite of all, as Georges Didi-Huberman writes in his book, Images malgré tout (Paris: Minuit, 2003), as an instant of truth, as “one of the last gestures of humanity.”
This essay originally appeared in the catalogue for the FotoFest 2012 Biennial.