Exploring the Future of Memory in Bogota, Colombia

Pressed between a highway, Colombia’s National Cemetery, and one of Bogota’s most impoverished neighborhoods sits a humble building with a great potential. Through the open window of a passing bus, the building appears to be no more than a short, boxy, sand-colored structure with reflective glass windows. But this view is deceiving. One only needs to approach the building and walk underneath it to realize that something unique and powerful is happening inside.

The Center for Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation in Bogota is a space unlike any other. It is neither a museum, a memorial, nor a community center, although it shares characteristics with all three. Built into the ground surrounding the building are offices, exhibit halls, classrooms, a library, and even an auditorium space. Together, the assemblage has a set of lofty goals: to memorialize and empower those who suffered in Colombia’s armed conflict; to educate the general citizenry of Bogota about the conflict; and to promote a peaceful future in Colombia, one where human rights are respected.

When the Center for Memory opened in 2012, it joined a slow but steady movement across the world for spaces that deal with conflict—or, more specifically, moving on after conflict—in innovative ways. Many of these institutions have cropped up in areas hard hit by war, usually decades after the war ends, and often as a response to persisting violence or a collective ignorance of what happened during the war. The Space for Memory and the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights in Buenos Aires is just one example; what had been a clandestine torture facility from the 1970s Argentinian Dirty War became a museum and a space for human rights groups to organize in 2001.

Amid this growing set of global institutions, the Center for Memory remains unique. Founded in 2012, it is the only space of its kind that opened during the very armed conflict it sought to memorialize. It is also one of the few spaces for collective memory run by a state entity, in this case by Bogota’s High Council for the Rights of Victims, Peace, and Reconciliation.

In part because the Center for Memory opened while Colombia’s armed conflict was ongoing, the Center takes a special approach to projects of memorialization. This approach is shared among similar institutions, and it involves promoting “memory projects” not for history’s sake—not to build an objective archive of the conflict—but in order to help victims, citizens, perpetrators, and future generations imagine what a more positive future in Colombia could look like.

In practice, memorializing initiatives at the Center for Memory tend to be less concerned with recording the facts and details of conflict, leaving that work up to official archives and museums. Instead, the Center for Memory focuses on the healing process, investigating how sharing individual and collective stories can have a positive effect on those who share and those who listen.

A recent exhibit at the Center for Memory called Fragments and Marks exemplifies this approach. In the weeks leading up to the exhibit, members of a non-profit organization called Fundación Prolongar traveled out of Bogota to a small town in central Colombia called Vista Hermosa. Vista Hermosa is one of the thousands of villages in Colombia that have been terrorized for decades by land mines left by the Colombian military and guerrilla forces during the armed conflict. While in Vista Hermosa, Prolongar hosted a series of closed workshops with land mine survivors.

For the residents of Vista Hermosa, the workshops represented the first time that any land mine survivors had gathered together as a collective group. Throughout the workshops, members of Prolongar guided the survivors through a series of creative and performing arts techniques to explore their bodies, their lives, and their collectivity in new ways. They crafted pottery pieces together, only to break them, glue them back together, and paint them in such a way to ensure that the breaks were still visible—a material metaphor for the residents’ bodies: transformed, but beautiful.

When the members of Prolongar returned to Bogota, they arranged an exhibit at the Center for Memory to commemorate the workshops and the residents of Vista Hermosa. Unlike a traditional land mine exhibit that may display decommissioned mines or fragments from explosions, the Fragments and Marks exhibit centered on the pottery pieces donated by the residents of Vista Hermosa, alongside recordings of their stories and lives that they chose to share.

A poster advertising the Fragmentos y Huellas exhibit. By Centro de Memoria, Paz y Reconciliación

The value of an exhibit like Fragments and Marks varies depending on the audience. For many lay visitors to the Center for Memory, Fragments and Marks served an educational purpose, combining facts of the conflict with local stories of its impact.

Many visitors were surprised to learn from the exhibit that Colombia trails only Afghanistan in  the number of victims of improvised explosive devices. Facts like this, coupled with the oral and visual accounts from the residents of Vista Hermosa, had a dual effect for visitors. “This place not only gives you the history of what happened during the armed conflict and makes it concrete. It also gives so many of the personal stories of the victims and survivors that you feel the effect of the conflict on an individual level,” commented a young student from Mexico who visited the Center for Memory in December.

For reporter Juan Alberto Sánchez Marín, exhibits like Fragments and Marks are effective ways of emphasizing the importance of non-repetition, or a “never again” mentality, for ordinary Colombians.

“Many people associate the cyclical nature of the Colombian conflict with the ‘unmemory’ of Colombians—their willingness to forget what has happened in this country,” Marín writes in HispanTV. “Confronting this ‘unmemory’ is exactly why the Center for Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation was created.”

Pottery made by residents of Vista Hermosa, before being transported to Bogota for the Fragments and Marks exhibit. Photo by Adelaida Tamayo, used with permission.

For the land mine survivors who participated in the workshops in Vista Hermosa, the value of the exhibit extended far beyond any notion of “unmemory.” As one of the participants from Vista Hermosa commented, “Our wounds may become scars, but we can never forget them.”

Instead, the workshops in Vista Hermosa were important to survivors for the creative processes they entailed—for the pottery and movement exercises, which, according to the exhibit, opened up “the possibility for residents … to find new ways of seeing … new appreciations for bodies that have been mended, restored, and transformed.”

Like all exhibits at the Center, this one will only be temporary. As part of the Center’s commitment to let memory be a process continuously shaped and remade, it runs no permanent exhibits. And just as the Fragments and Marks exhibit was curated by Fundación Prolongar alongside the residents of Vista Hermosa, all exhibits at the Center for Memory are curated in a bottom-up fashion. This means the Center for Memory receives proposals for exhibits, most often from NGOs like Prolongar or from organizations of victims seeking to tell their stories. In most cases, staff at the Center for Memory will provide little more than limited oversight and resources to those constructing an exhibit in order to ensure that partner organizations can remain creative and autonomous in the curatorial process.

A view from below, facing the Center’s main structure. Two visitors can be seen leaning up against palma de cera trees. With their ears pressed against the trunks, the visitors can listen to audio files recorded by the Center for Memory of survivors telling their stories and singing songs. To the left are the exhibit halls, and to the right are the main offices and classrooms. Photo by the author

Across the hall from the temporary exhibition spaces, the Center for Memory offers three large classrooms, free and open for use by the public. On any given day, one may walk by the classrooms to see them filled with a memory sewing group, or with attendants of an academic debate on the current peace process. Most often, they are filled by members of social and political groups that use the classrooms for weekly meetings.

For many of these social and political groups, having a free space to meet is no trivial matter. The majority of organizations that use the classrooms at the Center for Memory are organizations of victims. These social organizations are largely composed of the individuals most marginalized by Colombian society, such as women, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous people, many of whom fled to Bogota to escape the conflict. In the Center for Memory, they have found a space to meet and to organize events together.

Speaking of one of these groups, the Costurero de la Memoria sewing group, Juan José Toro of Pacifista noted that these meetings don’t always dwell on the violent events of the past. Instead they provide a space for productive conceptions of the present and future. “This is a space where, every Thursday, victims of different war crimes can congregate to sew cloth representations of their pasts, how they feel in the present, and of their hopes [for the future],” he said.

For Virgelina Chará, one of the leaders of the sewing group, “What we do in the Costurero is a form of public aid. This involves, among other things, making formal denouncements of crimes committed against us, constructing memory of our pasts, and providing psychosocial support to each other.”

“For me, the Costurero has given me strength, a way of life, and a better path forward,” says Blanca Nubia Díaz, one of the Costurero participants.

For another participant, Lilia Yaya, having this space to meet “is a form of feeling reparated and reconciled by society. That’s why this space needs to continue existing in Bogota.”

From its exhibits to its classrooms, the Center for Memory’s overarching emphasis on the process of memorialization rather than the outcome, tied with the practical resources the Center provides to marginalized groups, works to orient historical memory towards the future. In the Center’s own words, “We construct the past in order for dreams of the future to return.”

In the end, however, the conditions of violence in Bogota that led to a Center for Memory are not exclusive to that city. Colombia is not the only country where episodes of violence have rattled the social fabric of entire regions at a time. Many areas around the world, especially in the United States, could benefit from a Center for Memory. And yet the Center for Memory remains a singular institution with a global potential.

In Chicago, a Center for Memory could bring a great service. Whether it chooses to address gang-related violence, violence by police officers against black community members, or both phenomena, a Center for Memory could provide a link between policymakers and communities to intervene in the causes and results of violence, just as it works to empower the groups that are most impacted.

Bringing together the qualities of a memorial, museum, and community center, the Center for Memory model is both dynamic and inexpensive. It provides an innovative space for citizens of all walks of life to meet, to learn, and to find the common ground necessary to begin building a better city together. If there’s anything that a site of collective memory has the potential to do, it’s to bridge the current of a divided present.

As conflicts of all types continue to plague communities across the world, leaders and social organizers are encouraged to look to places like the Center for Memory in Bogota for partial solutions. A Center for Memory cannot do everything, but it can ensure that as wounds become scars, they are never forgotten in search of a brighter future.

Photo by the author

The image featured in this article is taken courtesy of the author, Atticus Ballesteros.

 

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