Mourners and protesters sewed together 2,300 sheets with the names of people killed or disappeared during Colombia’s civil war, for Doris Salcedo’s Sumando Ausencias. The gigantic shroud, which covered Bogotá, Colombia’s Plaza Bolívar, was completed on October 11, 2016.
On the morning of October 11, 2016, citizens of Bogotá, Colombia, completed an astonishing work of memory and mourning in the city’s Plaza Bolívar, the center of the national government: 2,300 names of people killed or disappeared in the country’s long civil war, which pitted government forces against leftist rebels, were written in ash on fabric panels. The panels were sewn together in a gigantic shroud: 23,000 square feet of cloth, completely covering the plaza. (The names represented only about 7 percent of the war’s victims.)
Artist Salcedo, who conceived and directed the project in collaboration with the art museum of Colombia’s National University, and the ordinary Colombians who carried it out were mourning—but they were also protesting. Only a little more than a week earlier, on October 2, a public referendum to approve a peace agreement with the rebels—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—had been rejected by a one-half-of-one-percent margin, after four years of negotiation. A campaign by former president Álvaro Uribe had produced just enough “no” votes to postpone an end to the almost-60-year struggle. The majority of Colombians felt desperate, angry, and hopeless. A protest camp sprang up in the Plaza Bolívar.
Salcedo, a sculptor and installation artist, put the word out that she wanted help in crafting a response to the vote. “Doris Salcedo invites us to draw the names of victims of the decades-long conflict on seven kilometers of cloth and then put them together with needle and thread,” read an email sent to everyone associated with the National University. Thousands of volunteers from all over Bogotá gathered in the plaza on the morning of October 6 to begin the project. Each sheet was reverently laid down on the ground and inscribed with a single name. Then all of the panels were sewn together.
“Sumando Ausencias is a work of art in which the victims of the armed conflict are put in the center of Colombia’s political life by an ephemeral community formed during the making of the project,” Salcedo told the online magazine Art21. “These were generous weavers who were able to gather in one single image the pain of thousands of families. The work is an act of mourning.”