“Sudarios” means “shrouds” in Spanish. “Sudarios,” the moving exhibition by Colombian artist-anthropologist Erika Diettes, now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, shows the faces of 20 women who witnessed the torture and deaths of those they loved in the course of Colombia’s long civil war. It comes at a particularly appropriate time, as the army and guerrillas finally reach a peace accord.
Diettes began as a visual artist and decided to get a master’s degree in anthropology. “In anthropology, I learned to ask the question. If you know exactly the question you’re asking, it’s easier to have the visual tools that you need to tell the story.”
“Sudarios” grew from a project called “Río abajo,” known in English as “Drifting Away.” Diettes traveled around Colombia for close to two years for that, talking to the families of those who “disappeared” during the decades of warfare between the army and FARC, “really seeing the faces of the persons who were directly affected by the war.”
FARC stands for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, in English.
She took clothing or objects that belonged to the murdered, photographed them in water — as the bodies of the disappeared were tossed into the river — printed them on crystal and framed them. The impression was of stained glass. The photos were hung with candles around them, memorials to the victims of violence.
That led directly to “Sudarios,” which deals with the witnesses to that violence, photographed in black and white. Most of the subjects in the new exhibition were women she’d met during “Río abajo,” with whom she made a connection. They live in places, she says, “where there aren’t usually art exhibits.”
Like “Río,” “Sudarios” is exhibited only in churches and other sacred spaces. “That’s a decision I took from the beginning of the project because I want the spectator to feel that these images need a different state of emotion and attention,” she says. “The space is the accomplice of this. Even if you are not religious, the architecture itself invites that. You lower your voice, you tip your head a little down. It’s a clue for the spectator that you are supposed to look at this in a different manner.”
At MOCRA, a former chapel at St. Louis University, the stained glass windows are exposed for the first time in the institution’s quarter-century history, notes the Rev. Terrence Dempsey, the museum’s director. Usually, they provide too much light and must be covered; for “Sudarios,” they add to the effect.
“I have one body of work that takes shape in different visual forms,” Diettes says. She photographed the women while they spoke with a psychologist who specializes in grief therapy. It took two to three hours per person, “because I wanted to capture that exact instant when they are remembering the moment when their life was torn apart.”
In the therapy process, “they remembered not only the tragic event, but also their loved ones. It’s this particular moment that’s a conjunction of love, pain, unbearable horror and memory. It’s all these stages that are being portrayed here.”
She called this project “Sudarios” with thoughts of both the shroud of Jesus and St. Veronica’s veil. Tradition holds that she was standing by as Christ was marched toward Golgotha, bearing the crosspiece; she gave him her veil to wipe his face, and when he handed it back, his image remained.
The portraits are printed on 7½-foot lengths of translucent silk — about the size of an actual shroud — and are visible from both sides. They’re hung from railings overhead, rippling as the air moves and seeming almost alive.
Diettes says that the photographs are large, in part, “to wrap the viewer in (the women’s) pain, this overwhelming pain invading the space and invading the spectator’s own physical space.”
All but one of the women have their eyes closed. “When you remember, especially if you remember pain, or love, you close your eyes, and it’s like your inner world. It’s that exact moment when you’re left with yourself and the pain and the emptiness that now inhabits your body. That’s what losing someone does to you. You become like the carrier of that emptiness.”
Of the woman whose eyes are open, Diettes says: “What really surprised me was that it was like she didn’t need to remember. This woman was present in the horror the whole time. For me, she’s the anchor of the whole exhibit. You see the violence. We can’t understand, and we really don’t want to understand. The only question you can ask is how they can rebuild from that. How do you go on?”
Does Diettes find hope in these portraits?
“I see not only pain and suffering; I see the women who tell this story,” she says. “It was an act of bravery to trust me to tell. They dressed up, they put on makeup and chose their best jewelry. That is part of their strength and dignity and of the story they’re telling the world.
“In the end, life will always impose itself. Human beings are deeply committed to life; we are resilient. There is always something around, this love, that makes you stay alive.”
For these women, “being alive is the bravest thing.”
What “Sudarios” • When 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday through Dec. 4 • Where Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, 221 North Grand Boulevard • How much Free; donation suggested • More info 314-977-7170; slu.edu/mocra