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Artist pays homage to murdered Colombia rights activists

/ 06:23 PM June 11, 2019
Colombian activists

A man sets up the names of killed, leftist activists, as part of the creation of an art installation by Colombia artist Doris Salcedo at Plaza Bolivar in downtown Bogota, Colombia. Image: AP/Ivan Valencia

The names of the dead are filling Colombia’s storied Bolivar Plaza.

One by one, renowned artist Doris Salcedo led volunteers June 10, Monday in creating a public art display in the nation’s capital in homage to dozens of human rights leaders killed in the aftermath of Colombia’s peace agreement signed in late 2016.

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Participants smashed rectangles of glass and then used the shards to etch the names of 165 leading activists killed in the South American nation.

“Glass, like life, is fragile,” said Salcedo, whose sculptures and public art exhibits focusing on mourning and loss have been displayed around the world. “Once broken, it cannot be mended. You cannot return it to its original state.”

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Oscar Rivera, a 43-year-old social activist from the southern state of Narino who says he has received death threats, wears a protective mask as he works on an art installation. Image: AP/Ivan Valencia

Community leaders are being harassed, threatened and slain in alarming numbers as Colombia implements the peace agreement with leftist guerrillas to end Latin America’s longest-running conflict.

Prosecutors and human rights groups contend as many as 506 activists have been killed since the start of 2016. They include Afro-Colombian activists, indigenous leaders, and human rights defenders, among others. Authorities believe remnant illegal armed groups and drug networks are responsible for many of the deaths.

Some of the activists were active proponents of aspects of the peace accord, including substitution programs to replace coca plants with new crops like coffee and cacao, as well as victim rights initiatives and land restitution.

The United Nations warned in May that the activist deaths are continuing at a staggering rate, with 51 reported killed in the first four months of 2019.

“We urge the state to make sure all killings, attacks and threats have properly investigated the perpetrators, including those directing them, as well as those carrying them out, are brought to justice,” said Rupert Colville, U.N. Human Rights Office’s spokesman, at the time.

Salcedo, a Colombian-born artist, said she thought that broken glass would serve as an effective, symbolic “fractured elegy” to the dead.

She chose Bolivar Plaza in the capital’s historic district because she wanted the memorial act to take place in a widely known spot, during the day. Government buildings surround the square, which is frequently used for public protests.

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colombian murdered activists

A man sets up the names of killed, leftist activists, as part of an art installation created by Colombia artist Doris Salcedo at Plaza Bolivar in downtown Bogota, Colombia. Image: AP/Ivan Valencia

“Mourning has generally been restricted to the private sphere,” Salcedo said as the work got underway. “I think that because these deaths are taking place in the light of day, in public space, we should take mourning to public spaces.”

Salcedo has become one of the most prominent voices in Colombia helping the nation heal through art as it implements the peace accord.

Last year, she debuted “Fragments”, a simple floor of tiles created with melted rifles. The minimalist but evocative piece is one of three monuments that rebels and government officials agreed to build with over 7,000 surrendered weapons.

In the past, Salcedo has also done giant public art displays in homage to topics like the 1985 siege of Colombia’s Palace of Justice where leftist rebels held over 300 people hostage, including high-ranking judges. About 100 people were killed and some remain missing. For that piece, Salcedo hung empty chairs from the building’s roof, a symbolic act aimed at compelling Colombians to remember the victims.

colombian murdered activists

Activists imprint a name in glass shards as part of an art installation, by Colombia artist Doris Salcedo, honoring leftist activists who have been killed since the signing of the peace deal at Plaza Bolivar in downtown Bogota, Colombia. Image: AP/Ivan Valencia

The volunteers for the latest piece, including social leaders who traveled from around the country to participate, worked through intermittent rain showers Monday.

Martha Arjona Marin, who leads a women’s initiative, said breaking the glass to form the names was a fitting tribute for a painful loss.

“It is a symbol of what it means for me, and for many of us, to lose a human being as valuable as a leader,” she said, weeping. “And I lost many, many people.”

Doris Salcedo

Colombian artist Doris Salcedo walks amid activists working on her art installation at Plaza Bolivar in downtown Bogota, Colombia. Image: AP/Ivan Valencia

Salcedo said she hopes the work will force Colombians to ask questions.

“If we don’t bring these people to the center of Colombia’s political reality, these murders will continue,” she said. HM/JB

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TAGS: Activists, Art display, Artist, Bogota, Colombia
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