Exhibit portrays the real cost of unrelenting violence

Theresa Orozco | theresaorozco@archstl.org
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The exhibition of 20 intimate portraits of women reliving a tragic period of their lives is moving — both figuratively and literally.

The photographs by Colombian artist Erika Diettes in "Sudarios" are of women who were forced to witness the torture and murder of their loved ones during Colombia's 50 years of civil conflict. The display is carefully designed to make the portraits come alive.

The lighting was selected by the artist with the stained-glass windows of the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA) at St. Louis University — normally covered to enhance preservation of the artwork — uncovered to let the light shine through for the first time in 23 years.

The seemingly floating black-and-white images printed on sheer silk with the same image on the front and back are from 6 1/2 to 7 feet in length and hung at varied heights — from 15 inches off the floor to 27 feet, becoming what an art critic called "an accumulation of suspended pain." It also has been termed "testaments to dignity."

The sheer cloth moves with the slightest air currents, bringing them to life.

The display, at MOCRA through Dec. 4, invites people to walk among the works hung from the soaring nave gallery ceiling in a former chapel. The semi-transparent images are what the artist calls "ghosts among us." They are physically present, but this experience was so wounding that they really are the walking dead in some cases.

"These are women who have witnessed something horrifying that involved their own families and is something none of us would want to experience," said Jesuit Father Terrence Dempsey, director of MOCRA. "There was a relationship of trust between the photographer and these women, and Erica wanted them to be displayed as a community and for us to experience them as a community. We can't see all the way to the other end until we walk among the photographs."

The priest also points out that the women's courage shines through as well as the grief. All but one of the women have their eyes closed. Two are wearing papal medallions.

To Father Dempsey, the exhibition taps into viewers' empathy, inviting them to have compassion as they look into their fellow human beings' suffering. "The Catholic Church has such a rich tradition of using imagery to help us define some things that are almost undefineable — to have a visual expression of the love of God, of the sacrifice and love of Christ, of the grief and strength of Mary and of the nonScriptural depiction of Veronica who wipes the face of Jesus out of compassion," he said.

It represents the many thousands of people who have experienced cruelty, the priest said, showing them as God's children, our sisters. The title refers to the Spanish word for shroud, especially the cloak to cover a deceased body or the burial cloth of Christ.

Diettes displays "Sudarios" only in churches and sacred places, appropriate because the women's lives and the lives lost to war are sacred. MOCRA is the former chapel for the Jesuits studying for the priesthood or brotherhood.

Father Dempsey brought the exhibit to MOCRA, the third place it's been displayed in the U.S., with the help of the Martha Schneider Gallery in Chicago. He maintained contact with Diettes for six months prior to opening the exhibit, sharing architectural drawings of the space and other information. David Brinker, assistant director of MOCRA, and Mark Wilson, professor of theatre design at SLU, collaborated with Diettes. 

>>'Sudarios'

WHAT: Black-and-white portraits which freeze instants of grief and are printed on large panels of fine silk

WHO: Colombian artist Erika Diettes

WHERE: Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA) at St. Louis University, 3700 West Pine Blvd.

WHEN: Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Dec. 4

FOR INFORMATION: Visit mocra.slu.edu or call (314) 977-7170 

About MOCRA

St. Louis University's Museum of Contemporary Religious Art is the world's first interfaith museum of contemporary art that engages religious and spiritual themes. MOCRA is dedicated to the ongoing dialogue between contemporary artists and the world's faith traditions and to serving as a forum for interfaith understanding. MOCRA intends to be inclusive and embracing, a center for healing and reconciliation.

About the exhibition

Colombian artist Erika Diettes explains that her work "is inspired by the extremely complex social, political, and cultural situation that exists in Colombia, along with theoretical questions raised by my reaction to the unrelenting violence that my country has experienced for decades." This violence stems from long-running conflict between Colombian government forces and the FARC rebel group (resulting in 260,000 people dead and millions displaced) as well as fighting between rival drug cartels and law enforcement. In the face of so much violence, Diettes says, "I have decided to bear witness to that violence, and to give the victims — both those murdered and disappeared and their survivors — voice through my art."

She set up a studio in the Colombian province of Antioquia, a region that has endured intense violence. She interviewed at length and photographed women who had been forced to witness the torture and murder of their loved ones.

About the artist

Erika Diettes is a Colombian visual artist and social anthropologist who explores issues of memory, pain, absence, and death in a variety of mediums from her multidisciplinary perspective. Her work has been exhibited in unique spaces linked to re-memoration processes developed by the victims' movements in Colombia as well as at other venues in North America, South America and Europe. Her work is part of the permanent collections of the Museo de Antioquia (Colombia) and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, as well as public and private collections in Colombia and the United States. 

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