Bearing Witness to Erika Diettes' "Memento Mori"

by W.M. Hunt

Memento Mori translates as "remember that you must die”.” It is more of an admonition here than a proposition to consider some still lifes associated with death. It serves as a strong title for this two volume set of books from the Colombian artist, Erika Diettes. These are part memorial, part history, part invitation to recognize and to respond to the violence that has plagued Colombia for the past twenty-five years and more. Colombians have endured unthinkable and ongoing violence from the drug turf wars between the Medellin and Cali cartels and the leftist guerrilla actions by FARC (Fuerza Armadas Revolutionaries de Colombia) against the government.

Diettes has a strong sense of honor. She has been vigilant about reaching out to people–the witnesses–and inviting them to be part of these projects by offering testimonies and or by donating personal articles.

The most immediate and dramatic works are very large, full face black and white portraits called “Shrouds/Sudarios”. These are dramatic and affecting images of mothers and wives photographed in states of transcendence, almost all with their eyes closed, sometimes with tears. It is not known to us what the memory or suggestion is, but it seems clear that the subjects - twenty of them–are seeing into an unfathomable darkness and evidencing a rapture or ecstasy of grief. In the introduction, curator Anne Wilkes Tucker says, “in the portraits...of these women, they are possessed.” They seem to have gone to a place of no return, emotionally and psychologically. The artist observes, "You become like a ghost; you have a pulse, but you have no life.”

The images were printed on fabric then hung in massive candlelit cathedral interiors where they have an elegiac impact even for the book reader. In person these would undoubtedly prove to be enveloping, physically and emotionally, as Diettes says, “ghostly, ethereal."

There is a disconnect between what is undoubtedly the immediacy of encountering the work in situ and the more mediated experiencing of it in such a lushly produced book. One feels the loveliness of the latter may be at odds with the terror and tragedies at the heart of the investigation. The empathic impact is blunted somewhat. This is, however, a small caveat.

In addition to “Shrouds/Sudarios” the two other bodies of work “Drifting Away/Rio Abajo" (translatable as downstream) and “Reliquaries/Relicarios" deal with evidence transformed into markers.

Distanced as the set may be, collectively the three are spiritually affecting if not intoxicating. The two volumes offer gravitas in their size, acting like headstones in a slipcase.

The first volume has texts which range from the artist’s powerful introduction to an essay by author and curator Ileana Diéguez, “Images in Mourning” to a well considered interview between the artist and Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator emerita of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, sensitively guiding us through Diettes’ practice.

The essays include statements worth repeating like Diettes’ "images…not going to be about the idealization of their faces, but instead about the significance of their pain” and Diéguez’s “We are in the fields of suspended, infinite mourning…"

But it is the photographs in the second volume which have the most immediacy: the “Sudarios” portraits first and foremost, then in “Rio Abajo", with clothing seeming to float in the limbo of a clear but moving river, printed large format on glass. Luminous.

We see the portraits in installation as well as images of the third series, “Reliquaries/Relicarios", personal effects of the dead and missing trapped in compact thick square tiles of seeming amber (actually a rubber polymer/tri polimeros de caucho), glowing in an almost alien yellow, evidence suspended for eternity.

Diettes has been intense about her process, sensitive in particular to the witnesses to terrible cruelty and then offering up places for them, allowing them to possibly process past horrors. We share in that journey.

The events that bring artists to bear witness like Ms. Diettes with her Mememto Mori are the cruelties of our inhumanity.

copyright W.M. Hunt 2016

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