Colombia Peace Process and Brexit in the Art of Doris Salcedo

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no telling who that it’s naming
For the loser now will be later to win
Cause the times they are a-changing

Bob Dylan



Almost eight years ago, the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo made visible a crack in British and other European societies. Her exhibition at the Tate Modern in London called ‘Shibboleth’ (October 2007–April 2008) put the finger on western societies’ attitudes towards discrimination, human rights and immigration. The title refers to an Old Testament story: The Book of Judges describes how the Ephraimites, attempting to flee across the river Jordan, were stopped by their enemies, The Gileadites. As their dialect did not include a ‘sh’ sound, those who could not say the word ‘shibboleth’ were captured and executed. Hence, therefore a shibboleth is a token of power: the power to judge, refuse and kill. (Herbert 2007). This idea was materialized in the form of a crack, a sculpture of a fracture on the ground of the Turbine Hall crossing the 167 metres of this space. The work, carefully crafted to fit the massive space, created a disturbing feeling of instability, a rupture, a gap, undefinable yet present. By calling this work ‘Shibboleth’, Salcedo aimed at provoking questions about personal, social, economic or cultural divisions: A shibboleth is a custom, phrase or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to a particular group or class’.  Eight years later in the Brexit referendum, such crack was visible and open, revealing the profound divisions within the British people on different sides of the socio-economic spectrum, and the simplification of the problem as a question of “us” and “them”. The characterization of the “others” (“them”) as inmigrants or EU bureoucrats, helped to fan the antagonisms of the political leaders of the moment and revealed the power of manipulation of arcane fears against the alien, the foreigner, the “Other”.  These fears have become the buzzwords of the political news in the last few months, with a number of measures aimed at revealing those “shibboleths”: working permits, curbing immigration, etc., revealing what Salcedo uncannily announced in her work at the Tate Modern.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShibboleth at Tate Modern. 2007. Photograph by Beatriz Acevedo. Copyright Doris Salcedo

The artist is familiar with these “others”, those who are invisible to the tourist who visit Colombian cities to find vibrant young folks, trendy neighbourhood and growing businesses. And are those others, the victims, the displaced, the “disappeared”, who become visible in the work of Doris Salcedo. Those who are systematically ignored, avoided or forgotten by the mainstream society. Her art is a constant act or remembrance and mourning. Actions that are necessary when the world spin around the spectacle of inmediate news, buried over the incoming scandal or the next football match. Her art echoes and develop the intention of contemporary artists such as Miroslaw Balka and Rachel Whiteread addressing the topic of memory in their artistic work. They aim at recalling certain events or memories through a material object through the involvement of the spectator and his or her emotions (Huyseen 1998, 2000; Cameron 1998).  In these works, the material object is never just installation or sculpture in the traditional sense, but it is worked in such a way that it articulates memory as a displacing of past into present, offering a trace of a past that can be experienced and read by the viewer. (Huyseen 1998: 33). Salcedo’s interest in how violence is exerted through materiality, architecture and spaces, emerges from her reflection on the puzzling aftermath of the Colombian conflict during the 1980s. The artist represent these violent facts through intervening and transforming certain familiar objects: beds frames wrapped and bound like bandages over a wound, a baby’s crib wrapped in barbed wire or household furniture buried in cement. In each of these works, the absent body was implied and the objects themselves became testimony to its passing (Merewether 1998).

Many of these sculptures were based on specific incidents of violence. For example, the artist presented a sculpture made of white shirts, neatly folded, hardened with plaster and crossed with metal spikes. This sculpture refers specifically to massacres that occurred in 1988 at two agro-industrial plantations, called La Negra and La Honduras, committed by paramilitary groups against members of the Unions. On 4 March 1998, twenty armed men in civilian clothes arrived at La Honduras farm situated in the jurisdiction of Turbo, in the Golfo de Urabá area of Colombia. They banged on the door of the room where the workers and their families were sleeping, and, calling each one by name, forced them to come out and lie down on the floor. The attackers then fired on the totally defenceless workers with short- and long-range weapons, killing the seventeen they had selected (Interamerican Commission on Human Rights 1993). Salcedo avoided a literal meaning, since the spikes did not show vital organs being pierced. Instead, the symbolism of this sculpture conveys the clean environment in which agro-industrial companies participate in the ongoing violence in Colombia. During 1990–1991 Doris Salcedo exhibited Atrabiliarios/Defiant. This work consisted of a series of cavities made directly in the walls into which worn shoes were placed. The artist collected a quantity of old, worn shoes that had belonged to the desaparecidos  /disappeared – people who have never been found. In particular, these garments belonged to women who ‘disappeared’ and were given to the artist by the victims’ families. The shoes, which are only partially visible behind a screen made of animal skin, echo the presence of the women to whom they once belonged, whose fate and whereabouts are still unknown. Apart from functioning as portraits of the women ‘disappeared’, the works in the series also reveal the need of a gender perspective in the consideration of the conflict and the Peace conversations. This element of gender, was one of the most questioned by the No campaign, in a very odd attempt at keeping women and other groups  invisible, as if they are not actually part of the war, victims, actresses, and peacemakers.

picture-2-atrabiliarios-1995-doris-salcedoAtrabiliarios. Image from The Legacy Project. Courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York.

Photo: Orcutt & Van Der Putten. Copyright Doris Salced

That is in my opinion the power of Doris Salcedo’s art: it enables us to “remember” and to “mourn”. For example, her ephemeral sculpture Tenebrae Noviembre 6 and 7 1985 in 2002 compelled Colombians to recall the cruel events of that annus horribilis. This installation aimed to remember the siege of the Palace of Justice in 1985. On the morning of 6 November, some members of the urban guerrilla movement M-19 burst into the Palace of Justice in Bogotá. They demanded that President Belisario Betancur come to the Palace of Justice to stand trial – a symbolic way of ‘judging’ him for the failure of the peace process and social reforms. The government overreacted to the situation by refusing any negotiation; thus they decided to take the Palace by armed force. There is still confusion as to the exact details of the assault, specifically as to what happened inside. Many of the hostages died in the crossfire between the rebels and government forces. It is also believed that many of the hostages may have died when a group of government troops used explosives to enter the building via the rooftop; others argue that guerrilla started shooting hostages when they realized there was not going to be any negotiation. Whatever the explanation was, this siege caused the deaths of almost 100 people, including magistrates and the disappearance of several guerrilleros. In 2015, when we thought we had overcome this situation, new revelations show the role of army in using the confusion to get rid of political enemies: magistrates and other civil servants, as well as the guerrilleros. For Doris Salcedo, who at the time was near the scene and witnessed the attack, this event was crucial to her development as an artist. As she explained, it was the time when she wondered, ‘what this means for me? How this affects my life? How can I go on eating, watching TV, walking, and living an apparent normal life, while knowing that this is happening?’ (González 2008: 67). In remembrance, she staged the 280 chairs that once were occupied by the magistrates who fell victims of the massacre. The first chair appeared suspended in the air at 11:35 am, the time when the first person was killed years ago, and the piece lasted as long as the actual duration of the massacre. The vision of ‘falling chairs’ appearing in the middle of the day in the heart of the city rang the bells of our memory… no matter how shining the new building of Justice may look, Salcedo’s falling chairs aimed at impacting people in the street: those who remembered the tragic events and those who seem to forget that we still have a conflict to resolve.


The truth is that Violence in Colombia is not easy to explain: it does not emerge from religious differences (albeit there is a growing influence of the evangelic churches gaining terrain from the Catholic faith, still we are all culturally/historically Christians); it is not about ethnic groups or tribes (we are all the same mestizos, indistinguishable in terms of skin colour), neither it is a clear political spectrum (albeit there is a polarization of the right and the identification of the left with the guerrillas, that nevertheless have benefited from capitalistic dynamics), but there are economic realities that are clear causes of the conflict. From the origin of the FARC in 1964 and the claim for wealth distribution, toward, the dynamics of land ownership triggered by the drug trafficking money and the paramilitary groups in the 1980s, and the advance of neo-liberal measures favoring only those who were able to compete in an sudden opening of the economy in the 1990s, toward the most complex dynamics of the new millennium: the decrease of state presence and help, the lack of opportunities for many sectors of the population, the deforestation and climate change effects on the poorest communities. Add to this the toxic contribution of drug trafficking with the violence, its money and corrupting power, and the cultural effects in a society that see in these “narcos” popular heroes glorified now by international media and TV networks.  In this confusion, only art seems to give place to some sort of utterance of what has happened. Not only Doris Salcedo, but in the popular music, rock bands such as 1280 Almas, Aterciopelados, and the French “social troubadour” Manu Chau have sung the conflict, pointing to the irrational violence of Señor Matanza and the claim of migrants across Europe longing for and fearing the Big Babylons. In the literature, the work of Laura Restrepo in Delirium, or Juan Gabriel Vasquez, in the “The sound of things falling“, aim at making sense of many years of silence, asking what has brought us here. Theatre has also helped us to reveal the many versions of the story, from the La Candelaria theatre of “Guadalupe Años Sincuenta”, to the recent cathartic work of Antigona, where the mothers of those “falsos positivos” request their children bodies, to bury them, to know what happened to them… all of these representaions are powerful ways to bring attention to the immense wounds of this country that is living a moment of great change, and it is through art, that it is possible to make sense of it all.

As broadcasted in the news of all over the world, the last few months have seen the rise, fall and change of long and complicated conversations between the Colombian Government, led by Presidente Santos and the FARC (the oldest guerrilla group and one of the main actors of the conflict, albeit not the only one).  On the 26th of September a Peace Agreement was signed, in presence of international organizations, leaders from all over the continent, the approval of United States, and the presence of UN General Secretary, Ban Ki-Moon in the signature.  One week later, President Santos called for a Referendum to ratify the Peace Agreement on the 2nd of October, and after a confusing campaign the NO won with 50.24% of the votes against 49.76% of those supporting the Peace. The result echoes the strong contest between the Remain and the Brexit voters in the United Kingdom (48% Remain vs. 52% Exit), and as argued recently by Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez in the Guardian, both the Brexit and the Colombian referendum were corrupted by lies, manipulation and a battle of egos.  As predicted by Doris Salcedo, the arcane fear of “others” and the different “shibboleths” were activated against certain groups of the population. For the British it was “immigrants” versus “locals”, for Colombians was the “guerrilleros” against “decent people”…  The surprise of the different factions was overwhelming: for the YES voters this was one of the most disappointing moments of our history (Plebitusa) as many saw in this the opportunity to imagine and work for a different country (it was accepted that this was just the beginning and that FARC are just one of the many actors of the conflict, but the Peace agreement symbolises a hope);  for the NO campaign, it was also a surprise, as the leaders of the campaign actually asked for a bit of time to prepare their declarations evidencing the lack of a Plan B, and for the rest of the country, those who did not vote, this was also a shock. During the subsequent days, reactions were varied: smugness in the faces of the NO leaders, the realisation of the power of evangelic and Catholic groups in the misinterpretation of the “gender approach” in the Agreements; and the reaction of young people and the student movement that until then was atomised and not that visible taking to the streets, in protest and demanding the continuation of the agreement.  And to top this all, on Friday 6th of October, it is announced that President Santos and other victims of the Conflict were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize! And as written by Garcia Marquez (our other Nobel):  “It was as if God had resolved to test all of wonder and keep the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent swinging between elation and disappointment, doubt and revelation to the extent that no one could know for sure where were the limits of reality. ”


Doris Salcedo. Participatory Installation. Plaza de Bolivar. Bogota, 11 de Octubre, 2016. Photography: Osvaldo Polo Chavez


So what now? In spite of the referendum result, the apparent triumph of the NO campaign, still it is not very clear what is going to happen. The most interesting thing is the activation of so many social movements and responses: the student movement assuming a political role; the influence of churches and evangelic groups also invited to dialogue; the convergence of campesino victims (3000)  and indigenous groups (7000) “walking” to Bogota, meeting in the Plaza de Bolivar (the main Square next to the President House), in order to make their presence felt. And the power of the Nobel Prize, as an international symbol supporting the Peace Conversations.  And once again, art and Doris Salcedo, reminds us that the Peace Agreement was not about FARC and Government, or Left vs. Right, or political participation per se, but the beauty of the Peace Agreement is about their focus on the victims of the conflict, the land reform, and the importance of offering economic opportunities for those affected by the violence to rebuild their future. Because then, in the middle of this conflagration of forces, people camping in the Plaza de Bolivar the marches in the streets, the candles and the music, the artist invited people to “weave” memories of the victims of the conflict in her work: Sumando Ausencias. Using white fabric, the artist and many collaborators wrote the names of 1900 victims of the conflict using ashes as charcoal. She invited people from all over the city to participate in this act of mourning and reconstruction: many sew the white rectangles of those cherished names, covering the almost 14.000 square meters of this symbolic space of the city. After the power of this participatory installation, the city had a brief white pause, a silence to remember that beyond the political discussions, the different bands, the old and emerging powers, this Peace is for those victims, those forgotten, silenced, invisible people who are still claiming for a solution.

And keep your eyes wide… for the wheel’s still in spin!



This blog is an updating of an article I published in the Journal of Arts & Communities Special Edition Arts & Human Rights:  Acevedo, B. (2009).

Memories of Violencia in the work of the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo: A subjective view

Please let me know if you would like to read the article.



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