Memory Envelops Justice

On December 4, 2016, more than two hundred people surrounded the Palacio de Justicia [1] in Bogotá with hundreds of embroidered testimonies, hand-made by female victims of the Colombian armed conflict. “Memory envelops justice,” we chanted over and over, as a mantra. We walked slowly, side-by-side, holding embroidered memories from all regions of Colombia. We carried them as banners and they covered our bodies as dresses do. We built an ephemeral history of war, based on the memories, denunciations, and hopes of the weavers.

Embroidered in yellow on a large rectangular piece of cloth are the letters that form the word Desplazamiento.[2] The title heads a story made up from smaller pieces of colorful fabric of different textures. In the center, there is a big sun partially hidden by two, white hands that symbolize the intervention and presence of God on Earth. Three white figures fly over the scene as ghosts or as appartions from the afterlife. Their gaze is directed at the spectator. The ghost in the center confronts an armed man dressed in black, who has lost his fear of God.

  Tejedoras de Mampuján/ Mampuján Weavers,  Frament of  Desplazamiento/Displacement,  2009.  Photo by Francisco Escobar Court. 

Tejedoras de Mampuján/ Mampuján Weavers,  Frament of Desplazamiento/Displacement, 2009.  Photo by Francisco Escobar Court. 

The tapestry, made by the Tejedoras de Mampuján(Mampuján Weavers), recounts what took place on March 10, 2000. On that day, a group of 60 paramilitaries from the Montes de María Block arrived at the municipality of Mampuján, Bolivar, ordering its inhabitants to vacate by dawn. According to the villagers' testimonies, the ‘paras’ raped several women. These events led to the displacement of more than 300 people.[3]

  Tejedoras de Mampuján/Mampuján Weavers,  Desplazamiento / Displacement,   2009.

Tejedoras de Mampuján/Mampuján Weavers, Desplazamiento / Displacement,  2009.

In 2001, a group of paramilitaries entered the home of Blanca Nieves Meneses and kidnapped her daughters, Nelsy Milena, Monica Liliana, Patricia Yenny, and Maria Nelly. For 10 years, Meneses buried crosses in the mass graves that she found while searching for her four missing daughters in Putumayo, a region in the south of Colombia. Meneses and her only surviving daughter, Nancy Galarraga, searched for their daughters/sisters for over seven years.

Meneses and her daughter Nancy pressured the Fiscalía—the Colombian equivalent of the FBI—to find the place where the four sisters lay buried.[4] Forensic research concluded that the Galárraga sisters had been tortured, raped, and assassinated. Their clothing had been torn apart and their bodies were found dismembered.[5] During their search, Meneses would also dream of her daughters in fragments.[6] In these dreams, one of them would undress to show her the large wound in her chest. When her mother would look for a rag to treat her wound, the daughter would disappear.

That same year, Meneses had the idea of sewing a quilt from some of the pieces of clothing left behind in her daughters’ closets. She cut the garments in different sizes and shapes and sewed them into a rectangular quilt.

  Blanca Nieves Meneses,  QUILT,   2010.

Blanca Nieves Meneses, QUILT,  2010.

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On the quilt, photographs of Meneses and her family surround a poem written by her daughter Nancy, sewn on in pieces. The poem narrates not only the traumatic memory through the metaphor of her sisters as seeds and then as sunflowers; it also evokes the complex relationship between campesinos,[7] their lands, and territories in the midst of an armed conflict. The work of tending the fields has been interrupted and replaced by the work of finding their family members underground, even in places where the Fiscalía would not go for fear of anti-personnel mines.

The use of the clothes from her four murdered daughters evokes their absence, their remains. The clothes also make visible the everyday lives of their wearers: the pieces of fabric slightly faded, the small specks, threads, and buttons that over time fell off. In contrast to the tearing of the women’s clothing and the unconfined force of the paramilitaries, Meneses was meticulous in trimming the garments, and perfecting the seams that unite the disparate pieces of fabric. Like in her dream, the mother tries to heal the wound of one of her daughters, and cure what is left of her daughters.

The story of this family, and the quilt woven by Blanca Nieves Meneses, continues to serve as a reference for other victims who seek advice and encouragement as they search for their loved ones.[8] Likewise, they have inspired other human rights defenders like Claudia Girón, who learned about Meneses' work in a visit to Putumayo.

As a result of their initial meeting with Blanca Nieves Meneses, along with other victims of the Putumayo region, Claudia Girón (at the time, the Director of Fundación Manuel Cepeda Vargas), Francisco Bustamante (who was in charge of the pedagogical work at Memoria de la Asociación Minga), and Ana María Ramírez (of FEDES) initiated the Proyecto del Costurero Kilómetros de Vida y de Memoria in Bogotá in 2013. The title, "Kilometers of the Weavers Life and Memory Project," refers to the great distances that victims of the armed conflict have had to walk. The objective at the Costurero is to create a space for the victims living in Bogotá to sit, weave, and engage in dialogue with people from other contexts, while sharing their life stories. Over the years, the Costurero has generated friendships. As Cruz Elena Alzate said, “Here, one understands that you are not the only one; that we are many more, and that we can come together. We are like birds with the same plumage.”[9]

From the outset, the main goal for Costurero Kilómetros de Vida y de Memoria has been to produce kilometers of embroidered fabric to wrap around the Palacio de Justicia, in order to reframe the concept of justice based on public action. The Palacio de Justicia, a location and symbol for judicial power in Colombia, represents a painful past for many Colombians—particularly for the relatives of the twelve disappeared, owing to the occupation of the Palace by the M-19 guerrillas and its recapture by the Army during the 6 –7th of November, 1985.

The project idea was strengthened by an exhibition of testimonial Fabrics la vida que se teje (Life being woven), curated by Roberta Bacic, Isabel González, and Beatriz Elena Arias at the Museum of Antioquia.[10] The exhibition, which took place from May 11 to July 10, 2016, gathered eighty-five pieces from different regions in Colombia and other Latin American countries including Chile, Perú, and México, which are also effected by social, armed, and political conflicts.

  Some of the weavers representing their different regions together in Medellín to build the  Red de Tejedoras por la Memoria y la Vida  / Network of Weavers for Life and Memory. Photo by Sara Castillejos, Focos Narrativos.

Some of the weavers representing their different regions together in Medellín to build the Red de Tejedoras por la Memoria y la Vida / Network of Weavers for Life and Memory. Photo by Sara Castillejos, Focos Narrativos.

As part of the program by Isabel González and Beatriz Aria, leaders located and contacted seamstresses from different regions of the country. They gathered to build the Red de Tejedoras por la Memoria y la Vida (Network of Weavers for Memory and Life). This Network set out to create collective and peaceful actions for political empowerment, with the end goal of promoting and furthering restorative processes of civil resistance, based on the narrative strength and expressive richness that weaving offers.

Under this same premise, it was agreed to weave several pieces of fabric to wrap around the Palacio de Justicia in December, an action stemming out of two main questions: How can Colombian citizens, through daily action, contribute to the construction of Peace in Colombia? What are our demands to the State and the guerrilla groups to comply with what was agreed in the recently signed Peace Agreement?

While weavers from all over the country were thinking through and responding to these questions, president Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (alias Timochenko), leader of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC), signed the Peace Agreement to put an end to a more than fifty-year long civil war. According to the law, the Agreement was meant to be endorsed in a plebiscite that took place on October 2, 2016. With a slight margin of difference, coming from areas least affected by the war, the majority of the voters rejected the Peace Agreement, which was put in limbo until renegotiations in November of the same year.

During those two months of uncertainty, a large number of Colombians came out to manifest their opinions and sentiments in many ways. On October 12th, communities of victims from around the country traveled to Bogotá to unite at the Plaza de Bolívar (Bolívar’s Square)—the epicenter of Colombian public and political life—where they demanded a ceasefire from the State. The Plaza was transformed into a permanent protest space, as people built campsites and remained there until the new agreement was finally signed.[11]

  Weavers from  Costurero Kilómetros de Vida y de Memoria  during the march for the victims during October 12th. Photo from their Facebook page.

Weavers from Costurero Kilómetros de Vida y de Memoria during the march for the victims during October 12th. Photo from their Facebook page.

On Sunday, December 4, a week after the signing of the new Peace Agreement and the dispersal of the protesters’ camps at the Plaza de Bolívar, a group of about thirty weavers from all over the country—as part of the Red de Tejedoras por la Memoria y la Vida—met in the Plaza. They sewed together all the fabrics they had made up to that point, creating 420 meters of fabric, enough to wrap around the Palace of Justice. The embroideries came in different sizes and presented various images and forms of the participants’ families and community histories.

When roughly a hundred of us were lined up in front of the Palacio de Justicia, we began to walk slowly, carrying more than 300 pieces of fabric, side to side, interspersed with the photographs of those disappeared in the takeover of the Palacio de Justicia.

   El Espectador,  December 4th, 2016.

El Espectador, December 4th, 2016.

The ensemble of fabrics narrated multiple tragedies, from state crimes and paramilitary takeovers, to the Bojayá massacre, specifically embodied in the Memory of Bojayá Curtain. This cloth is embroidered with the names of the eighty-four people who died when the FARC bombed a church, in which hundreds of innocent civilians were taking refuge. The sequence of fabrics exposed multiple discourses and creative gestures, highlighting the particularity and diversity of the experiences of the war in different communities and regions of the country.

In rural areas affected by the conflict, men dominate public spaces and women occupy private spaces. Weaving is considered an intimate and domestic type of work relegated to women: merely decorative and harmless, it is commonly perceived as craft, and as folk art. In this process, weaving continues to be an intimate act. Although our capacity to feel pain is as certain as our capacity to feel hunger, if painful events cannot be translated into words, we usually can’t think of them, nor even talk about them and share the experience with others. Traumatic experience points at these limits of language through the silences and abysses that come after, dividing our memories from our immediate context. Feeling pain is an isolated, internal and solitary experience. Words are scarce and rarely accurate enough to communicate it.

With the intention of taking their embroidery out of the enclosed spaces in which they meet and exposing them in public space , the weavers execute a political act, denouncing and resisting the continuous violation of human rights in Colombia. The Plaza de Bolivar is considered as a space of struggle, meeting, and construction with other citizens. In this way, the square is resignified; it becomes the means for the transmission of a political discourse that interacts with its recipients and is constantly being reconstructed. The act of the weavers intends to visualize, enunciate, and denounce the tragedies of the most underrepresented voices in Colombian public space, achieving the creation and solidification of a new public awareness.

Unfortunately, the public action of Memory Surrounds Justice had little impact on the national media and was not covered by any international press. Although some informational notes were published in the press, it did not have the same media coverage as other artistic manifestations in the Plaza de Bolívar, such as the work Sumando Ausencias by the renowned Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, held in the Plaza de Bolívar October 11, 2017.[12] Salcedo convened with voluntaries to write the names of nearly 2,000 victims of the Colombian armed conflict with ashes on rectangles of white fabric, which were then knit together by hundreds of people in order to create a quilt that covered the entire Plaza. The action lasted an entire day, and the quilt was removed that same night.

Salcedo’s work suggested a silent atmosphere where participants were focused on knitting the pieces of fabric, in a meditation that acknowledged the thousands of Colombian lives that the war has reclaimed. On the other hand, the action by the Red de Tejedoras, made up mostly of peasant women, silenced throughout decades, aimed at speaking loudly and clearly about impunity and injustices, seeking to remind Colombians and the State that, in spite of everything, they are still alive. Even though both actions in the Plaza were relevant and timely in this particular sociopolitical context, and both managed to involve hundreds of citizens from different social contexts, the (silent) piece by Salcedo was backed by universities, renowned intellectuals, and by public and private institutions, who helped gather people in the Plaza and create an urgent sense of expectation. This piece also created numerous controversies around the ethics of the artist, in relation to those for whom they speak and what the appropriation of a certain political discourse means. Even though the weavers were also backed by some public institutions and human rights organizations, their action was only reported by a single newspaper and a single news channel.

In spite of the lack of media dissemination around this public action, the event nevertheless represented a milestone in their construction of historical memory for the weavers. For the first time, the voices and fabrics of the members of the Red de Tejedoras por la Memoria y la Vida were gathered in the capital of the country, a city long indifferent to the victims of the conflict, often seen through a screen or begging in its streets. Although testimonial fabrics do not stop the war and its consequences, the authors value these moments of encounter and solidarity, because it is through the creation of (and in) these spaces that they recognize themselves as visible women with rights and not as invisible beings destined to suffer.

Bibliography

Arias, Beatriz. Personal Interview. March 18, 2017.

Bacic, Roberta. Personal Interview. March 2, 2017.

Blu Radio Colombia. “Cecilia Arenas relata la historia de su hermano víctima de falsos positivos”, Youtube, September 15, 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sp2ItZSMfn4

Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, Hasta encontrarlos. El drama de la desaparición forzada en Colombia, CNMH, Bogotá, 2016

Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica. Mujeres y guerra. Víctimas y resistentes en el Caribe colombiano. Resumen. Bogotá: CNMH, 2014.

Galárraga, Nancy. Personal Interview. February 17, 2017.

Girón, Claudia. Personal Interview. February 15, 2017.

GMH. ¡BASTA YA! Colombia: Memorias de guerra y dignidad. Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional, 2013.

Montaño, Esteban. Entre hilos y agujas. Pacifista.co, Abril 9, 2015, http://pacifista.co/entre-hilos-y-agujas/ Disponible el 1 de marzo de 2017.

Museo de Antioquia. “La vida que se teje”. Vimeo, May 11, 2016. https://vimeo.com/166271848

Direct Witness. “Por fin descansan en paz” Youtube, November 12, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8gN18jlqbQ

Verdad Abierta. “Falsos Positivos, una herida que sigue abierta”, February 10, 2015. http://www.verdadabierta.com/especiales-v/2015/falsos-positivos/ Disponible el 23 de febrero de 2017.

Verdad Abierta. “Miembros del batallón Malagana fueron cómplices de paras en Mampuján”. http://www.verdadabierta.com/justicia-y-paz/2419-miembros-del-batallon-malagana-fueron-complices-de-paras-en-mampujan, Available March 22, 2017.


  1. Colombia’s Palace of Justice is where the highest courts of the nation are located.  ↩

  2. Referring to internal displacement, a term specially used in international law to designate people who have been forcibly removed of their original territories, mainly to urban areas in the same country they are from. ↩

  3. Verdad Abierta ↩

  4. Blanca Nieves Meneses and her daughter Nancy Galárraga were forced to move after receiving several death threats for searching for the mass graves. Before her four murdered daughters were found, Blanca Nieves said: “if they told me they are in a hole over there, there I would come and dig” (CNMH 359).  ↩

  5. As reported by a direct witness.  ↩

  6. Ibid  ↩

  7. Peasants, who make up the largest population of victims of the Colombian conflict.  ↩

  8. According to Nancy Galarraga's account: "(...) That was every day that I got approached, and I became like the intermediary, the spokeswoman, and I tried to help and give strength. I would talk to them and tell them that if they knew where there were more graves, that they should talk, and if they were afraid, I would go to their house so they could trust me. " (CNMH 359).  ↩

  9. Montaño  ↩

  10. The largest state in Colombia  ↩

  11. Shortly after, this group became known as the civil movement Campamento por la Paz (Camp for Peace).  ↩

  12. Another possible explanation for this is that the news about the public action of >Memory Surrounds Justice was eclipsed by the terrible news of the kidnapping, rape, and murder of the girl Yuliana Sambony in Bogotá by an architect belonging to Bogotá’s upper class, which happened the same day as the event.  ↩


Manuela Ochoa writes about art and is the curator of oropendola.com.co, the digital art gallery of the National Museum of Memory in Colombia. She studied Art at Universidad de los Andes and obtained her Master’s in History and Theory of Contemporary Art from the San Francisco Art Institute. She worked as co-curator for the exhibit Feliza Bursztyn, Elogio de la chatarra at Museo Nacional de Colombia and as a researcher for Laguna Libros and Radio Ambulante. She lives and works in Bogotá, Colombia.