As I prepare to return to Colombia this summer, I want to share with you this moving article that the Cartagena-based freelance writer Diana de Vega has written for DAN about a recent exhibition of masks made by Colombian women to commemorate the victims of the Montes de Maria conflict.
Masks, normally elements of distraction used to hide one’s face and identity, have been made by women victims of violence in Colombia in their effort to narrate their experience through an artistic mean, to render a different result. The realization – as one gazes at the masks, which are perfectly well arranged and spaced, is that these are definitely not elements of distraction, but true expressions of each of their maker’s essence, offering a glimpse into their souls. The project, Narrating Memory to Live, meant to reconstruct the historic memory of women victims of conflict in the region of Montes de Maria, Colombia, and has resulted in an exhibition of around 50 striking masks that tell their stories.
There is pain, yet there is color; there is regret but also hope. The women wrote words on their masks or as footnotes to their masks, to hint at what they were thinking when they were finishing their pieces: next to “terror,” “pain,” “fear” and “no more,” are “perseverance,” “endurance,” “happiness,” “entrepreneurship,” “justice,” “life,” and “gratefulness.” In all, the feeling that pervades or perhaps the message that is indeed passed along, is one of optimism, strength and beauty. The beauty of each mask is amplified by the beauty of the collection of masks, together in a space dedicated to them.
The exhibition is not violent, but poignant; the impressive collection of masks tells the stories of what happened to the women, yet ultimately focusing on life and on being alive. The collective display becomes one, and together, these masks and the artists that made them are a lesson in resilience for all of us.
The Montes de Maria mountain range in the northern part of Colombia has been plagued by violence for decades leading to displacement and human rights violations. The women who made the masks were all victims of violence; they were displaced, lost their homes and their families or part of their families, and were subjected to different forms of violence and abuse. The project focused on women specifically since their testimonies often go unheard and are silenced. The true dimension of women’s victimization is not usually a part of recorded history: they often do not wish to relive, speak of, or denounce for fear of being re-victimized. Through this process of symbolic and analogical narration through art, the victims are protected. The element of distraction is meant to protect the victims and their identities, but at the same time, they share an intimate part of who they are and of their personal history.
The masks personify these women’s aspirations and dreams, as well as their fears and nightmares. By expressing their negative experiences and acknowledging their fears, the women realized that they are not alone, that there are other victims, and that they are all survivors. The process, led by artists and supported by the local government and the Governor of Bolivar’s office, was thus meant as a collective and cathartic exercise to help women cope with their pain and loss. The result is an exhibition to be viewed by all, and is also a way of inserting their narratives, their stories and their experience into our collective memory and that of the country’s violent history. Colombia, much like this exhibition, is a country of many masks, where beauty, optimism and color predominate over violence and terror.
The masks have been exhibited in the San Pedro cloister in Cartagena, Colombia, and will soon be exhibited again at a venue to be disclosed.