How Do You Memorialize Loss, Violence, and Injustice?

A group of artists gathered to share their experiences creating works that encompass collective memories and mourning as well as hope and healing.

Angeline Joelle Dimambro
November 09, 2021

On October 14, 2021, the School of the Arts held the first in a series of conversations about Reparative Memory. The online event also marked the public launch of the Zip Code Memory Project: Practices of Justice and Repair, which is based at the Center for the Study of Social Difference.

English and Comparative Literature Professor Marianne Hirsch and Diana Taylor, co-directors of the project, framed the evening through their opening remarks.

“We could not think of a better way to launch the Zip Code Memory Project than with this discussion on memorials,” Hirsch said. “The pandemic has had radically unequal effects on people living in the Zip codes around Columbia, in Upper Manhattan, and the South Bronx. Working closely with neighborhood and arts organizations, as well as community members, students, artists, and activists, we want to build on the extraordinary networks of care that COVID has occasioned to open a space of creativity where neighbors can come together to acknowledge their loss.”

Hirsch typified the Zip Code Memory Project as a local, intimate endeavor, a collective work-in-progress. “Participants will work in small groups, then come together in larger groups through public events, performances, and neighborhood activities,” Taylor said. After six months, the process will culminate in a final performance and exhibition at St. John the Divine.

Carol Becker, Dean of the School of the Arts, then introduced the evening’s participants: architect Michael Arad, photographer Susan Meiselas, artist Doris Salcedo, artist Hank Willis Thomas, and GSAPP Professor Mabel O. Wilson, each of whom discussed one of their projects, and the challenges they faced in creating communities of memory.

Mabel O. Wilson: Memorial to Enslaved Laborers

The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, opened in the spring of 2020, and honors the thousands of enslaved people who lived and worked at UVA between 1817 and 1865. The university’s grounds—designed by Thomas Jefferson and now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—were built and maintained by these enslaved men, women, and children. Wilson is one of the key members of the architectural team that designed the memorial.

The memorial features “memory marks,” as well as the names and identifiers of the enslaved individuals, carved into granite. Because of their shape, these marks collect water when it rains, and eventually spill over, making it appear as if the memorial itself is crying. The architectural team sought to translate cultural traditions into elements of their design, including water, which “became a means to tell the story of liberation,” said Wilson, whether in West African libation rituals or the currents that carried so many to freedom.

Carved into the memorial is an 1867 quote by Isabella Gibbons, the only member to date of UVA’s enslaved community for whom archivists were able to recover a full name, date of death, photograph, and brief written record. After liberation, Gibbons became a teacher and founder of the Freedmen’s School in Charlottesville. A witness for her community, her words are set into the memorial: “Can we forget the crack of the whip, cowhide, whipping-post, the auction-block, the hand-cuffs, the spaniels, the iron collar, the negro-trader tearing the young child from its mother’s breast as a whelp from the lioness? Have we forgotten that by those horrible cruelties, hundreds of our race have been killed? No, we have not, nor ever will.”

As Wilson noted, the memorial continues to evolve. “It came into fruition through a collective desire to face the past,” she said. “Another community made visible through this collective reckoning was the group of descendants claiming kinship with the enslaved. That connection between descendants and ancestors is a beginning, not only of remembrance, but also of accountability to reckon with truths.” 

Doris Salcedo: Fragmentos

Made in 2018, Fragmentos: Espacio de Arte y Memoria is a counter-monument conceived by Salcedo, and made with the collaboration of women victims of the Colombian armed conflict. The site in Bogotá is operated by the National Museum of Colombia, the Ministry of Culture, with a program that includes the presentation of artistic works commissioned especially for the site, cultural activities, conferences, and workshops. The site consists of three articulated spaces made of molten metal from the weapons of former Colombian guerrillas.

“In 2016, the Colombian government and the guerillas signed a peace accord with the intention to end an internal armed conflict that raged for more than 50 years,” Salcedo said. “In the final version of the agreement, it was stipulated that three monuments—one of which is Fragmentos—should be built with the firearms and ammunition that more than 13,000 guerillas gave up.”

“This work has a collective character,” Salcedo said. “The most important collaboration was with a group of survivors of sexual violence, who helped me to give shape to the piece. Fragmentos acquires its fullest meaning only when it houses the work of other artists, or when groups of victims use the space to make visible their experiences.”

Hank Willis Thomas: The Gun Violence Memorial Project

The Gun Violence Memorial Project was born out of an experience of loss for Thomas, along with 20 years of reflection and mourning. He woke up on February 3, 2000, to find out that his cousin, Songha Thomas Willis, had been murdered. “Learning about the way the story of a death is told through the media—‘A good guy, slain for a few bucks’—was not how I thought my cousin’s life would go, and certainly not how I thought it would end,” Thomas said.

“When Songha was lost,” he said, “it wasn’t just his family who lost him; it was so many others. I realized that if you’re not famous when you die, you are only truly memorialized in the hearts and minds of those who love you.” This discovery led to Thomas’s photographic portrait project, “Bearing Witness: Murder’s Wake,” which served as an opportunity for Thomas to spend time with his cousin through the people who knew and loved him, and were affected by his life and death.

Launched at the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial, the Gun Violence Memorial Project features four houses built of 700 glass bricks, with each house representing the average number of lives taken due to gun violence each week in America. Families who have lost a loved one to a shooting contributed remembrance objects at in-person collection events. These objects are placed within a glass brick, which displays the name, and birth and death years of the person being honored.

The work preserves individual memories, and communicates the magnitude of collective loss and its impact on society, with the aim of fostering a national healing process. The Gun Violence Memorial Project is now on view at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

Susan Meiselas: Travessia

This project draws upon Meiselas’s work from over a decade ago, when she photographed residents of Cova da Moura, Portugal, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Lisbon. Months after her first visit, Meiselas returned to Cova da Moura to hold a workshop with teenagers from the community, which included photographing their daily lives. Meiselas’s portraits were installed in the places where she had originally taken them, and the teens’ work was showcased in the neighborhood’s central plaza.

This effort led curator and writer Lydia Matthews to invite Meiselas to conceive a project with the local Afro-descendant community for the photography biennial held in Porto, Portugal, in May 2021. Meiselas’s contribution, Travessia, was created in dialogue with another photographic project, Muxima, by Alfredo Jaar. Together, both parts of the exhibition examine the aftermath of Portuguese colonialism in different places—Porto and Angola—highlighting the ongoing socio-cultural challenges in the lives of Black Africans and their descendants, both in Africa and Europe.

Travessia entailed extensive online research, as well as collaborating with an important elder in the Porto community, Doña Claudia. “When showing her printouts of the internet maps we had researched, she corrected them, carrying the knowledge of what was past, but no longer present,” Meiselas said. “She made notations about lesser-known places where there was formerly an African presence. We were led from one street to another, seeing what was invisible to many local white residents.”

This months-long process led to a workshop, where Porto participants annotated photographs to write about the places they had shown Meiselas and her team. The expansive community network was at the heart of Travessia. “What will continue to resonate when the walls no longer hold the memories of this collective participation and public provocation?” Meiselas asked.

Michael Arad: The Emanuel Nine Memorial

Arad, who is known for his work on the National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site in New York City, was selected in 2017 to design a memorial to the victims of the 2015 massacre at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The Emanuel Nine Memorial encourages people to follow the example set by the families of the Emanuel Nine, and to honor the victims’ lives by teaching new attitudes and behaviors to reverse racism. The expected groundbreaking for the monument will take place in 2022.

Before the design process began, Arad and his team worked with the AME congregation to reimagine the church grounds. The site will be composed of several parts, including a courtyard with two benches facing each other, whose high backs arc upward toward the sky, like sheltering wings. The benches will encircle a marble fountain with the names of the Emanuel Nine carved around its edge. There will also be a garden, dedicated to the five people who survived the attack, as well as the congregation.

“The public aspect of any memorial is very important,” Arad said. “It can bring together many different people from many different places in the world, and give them a shared experience.”

After the presentations, Becker reflected on the similarities of the projects: “Everyone is working with this notion of a gesture—a response to a particular situation, a difficult historical moment or configuration of moments, and creating a symbolic world within which people can have these collective experiences.”

The event was copresented by the Center for the Study of Social Difference, Columbia World Projects, The Forum, the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities, and the Simon H. Rifkind Center for the Humanities & the Arts at the City College of New York.

The School of the Arts will host a second Reparative Memory panel in Spring 2022.

Angeline Joelle Dimambro is a Screenwriting/Directing Film MFA student at the School of the Arts.