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An Artist Blanketed Bogota’s Bolívar Square With the Names of Victims of Colombia’s Civil War

Remembering the dead as the country struggles to make peace

Sumando Ausencias (2016) Doris Salcedo (Doris Salcedo/Photo by Oscar Monsalve)
smithsonian.com

It’s been a significant few weeks for Colombia.

After decades of civil war and years of negotiations with the South American country’s largest rebel army, it seemed like peace was finally on the horizon. However, the Colombian people narrowly rejected an agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Barely a week later, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in brokering that landmark peace deal. While negotiations are continuing amidst a shaky ceasefire set to expire at the end of October, artist Doris Salcedo took time to make sure the world remembered some of the many victims from the war that has raged for 52 years.

Last week, Salcedo covered the main square of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, in 2,350 pieces of white cloth. Each hand-stitched-together piece bears a name, written in ash, of a victim of the conflict, Sibylla Brodzinsky reports for The Guardian. The installation blanketed the plaza for 12 hours, created a haunting picture of the cost of the bloody battle between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels.

“The names are poorly written, almost erased, because we are already forgetting these violent deaths,” Salcedo said in a statement.

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(Doris Salcedo/Photo by Oscar Monsalve)

Working with teams of volunteers and supported by Colombia’s Museo de la Universidad Nacional, Salcedo had people inscribe the names of thousands of the dead in ash as a means to show how easy it is to forget about the actual people hurt by the war, Anny Shaw writes for The Art Newspaper. The names were chosen at random by the Unit for Comprehensive Victim Support and Reparation, Melba Escobar writes for El Tiempo. Titled “Sumando Ausencias,” or “Adding Absence,” Salcedo intended the white cloth memorial to act as both a kind of burial shroud as well as a reminder of what the peace negotiations are trying to keep from continuing. 

The vote against the recent peace agreement came a shock to many: after four years of negotiations, many observers believed that the majority of Colombian people would vote to end the war in a national referendum. However, only about 38 percent of people voted in the referendum and a slight majority voted to reject the peace deal, leaving the country in a precarious position, Kejal Vyas and Juan Forero reported for The Wall Street Journal. Even awarding President Santos this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was in part an effort to show support for continuing peace talks.

This isn’t Salcedo’s first large-scale art piece to touch on the casualties of Colombia’s war,  Claire Voon reports for Hyperallergic. In 2007, Salcedo set up another piece in Bogotá’s main square called “Acción de Duelo,” (“Duel Action”) as a means of commemorating the lives of 11 deputies who were kidnapped and killed by the FARC in 2002.

“Sumando Ausencias” was only on display for a few hours. However, Salcedo's act of memorializing the war’s victims lingers as a reminder to the people of Colombia of the importance of continuing to work toward peace.

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(Doris Salcedo/Photo by Oscar Monsalve)
About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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