Memorials commemorating a nation’s past conflicts can help to build a more peaceful future when created to serve as symbolic reparations for victims of human rights violations, according to two UConn professors working to improve how such memorials can serve as a central framework in the transition from conflict to peace.
Robin Greeley and Michael Orwicz, art history professors in the School of Fine Arts, say that without great care in developing them, memorials to human rights violations can be ineffective in strengthening civil society and moving people toward a more peaceful and inclusive future.
The two art historians are researching how to design memorials with artistic and cultural considerations to promote justice and reconciliation of past human rights abuses in nations throughout Latin America. They are members of the Symbolic Reparations Research Project, a group of humanities and legal scholars specializing in human rights, art, and culture, who are developing guidelines on symbolic reparations for victims of human rights violations to be presented to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) in Costa Rica. A grant from the Intellectual Humility in Public Discourse Project of the UConn Humanities Institute is funding the research to develop these guidelines.
Orwicz says when international courts order reparations for human rights violations there can be monetary compensation, non-monetary – or symbolic – compensation, or a combination of both. Monetary awards can take the form of restitution of property or money that a person killed would have generated for their family. Non-monetary compensation can range from public apologies by the state, to publication of court sentences against perpetrators, to educational platforms aimed at promoting reconciliation and social justice. Frequently, he says, the IACHR also mandates a symbolic, public commemoration – such as a monument or museum – that serves as a memorial to victims of abuse. While well-intentioned, such monuments can prove to be problematic.
Orwicz says that monuments legislated by the court are often resented by those who suffered. “They often don’t work in terms of either recognizing the victims or imparting a sense of justice.”
An example of a memorial sculpture that did not provide a sense of justice or dignity to victims of paramilitary attacks in the Montes de Maria region of Colombia in 2000 is a statue of a man riding a donkey, with a plaque saying who gave the sculpture.
Greeley says the court ordered a monument and told the perpetrators of the massacres to pay for it, but didn’t articulate how that would work. What ended up happening was that the perpetrators had a lot of control over the monument itself. Immediately after it was unveiled, people started complaining, because they felt it did not encompass them. “The plaque said who gave the sculpture – the perpetrators – but not why. The judge herself recognized it was a failure and ordered another symbolic reparation.”
According to Greeley and Orwicz, the primary objective of a court awarding symbolic reparations is to address the dual purposes of repairing the dignity of victims, and preserving historical memory and helping to prevent future transgressions. The Symbolic Reparations Project is working to assist human rights lawyers and judges to understand how artists can work with communities that have suffered violence to create interactive experiences as part of symbolic reparations to reach these objectives.
“It’s aimed at really transforming society, such that the structural conditions that prompted the violence in the first place are eliminated so the violence doesn’t happen again,” Greeley says. “A failure to clarify those two terms – measures of satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition – and especially how they relate to each other, resulted in cases where those two terms contradicted each other, or worked at cross purposes.”
While discussing with human rights lawyers in Colombia how art could be part of symbolic reparations, Greeley and Orwicz discovered the lawyers were thinking simply about paintings. The art history professors expanded the discussion to include music, film, and dance, as well as visual art, stressing the crucial importance of thinking about artworks not as fixed, inanimate objects, but as dynamic, inclusive processes aimed at promoting dialogue.
As an effective example of symbolic reparation, Greeley and Orwicz point to “The Eye That Cries,” a large abstract artwork produced in 2005 by the artist Lika Mutal. The work is a labyrinth made of more than 30,000 stones inscribed with the names of victims of the war between the Peruvian government and the guerrilla group, Sendero Luminoso, from 1980 to 2000. Visitors walk through the labyrinth, bending down to read the names of relatives or friends.
Such interaction is similar to what occurs at the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial in Washington, D.C., created by Maya Lin, where visitors walk along the long black wall seeking names of family and friends who died during the war, often touching the wall and tracing the names of loved ones.
Another successful memorial, Greeley and Orwicz note, is the “Anonymous Auras” in Bogotá, Colombia. The artist, Beatriz Gonzalez, utilized iconic graphic images to recall the war dead on a series of mausoleums in the city’s Central Cemetery. The images pay tribute to a 19th-century tradition of carrying people through the mountains, and create a sense of the immense toll exacted by Colombia’s conflict.
Orwicz says such interactive art designs for symbolic reparations mandated by the courts are examples of the influence of Richard Serra, the American sculptor in the post-abstract expressionist period whose work drew attention to how a viewer can personally engage with contemporary art, much of which aims to engage viewers directly in the artworks.
“All of these works are anchored in more contemporary ideas of what art does,” Orwicz says. “They become performative artworks, engaging the spectator in generating the work’s meaning.”
Greeley and Orwicz will host a symposium to address efforts to create “museums of memory” in various nations across Latin America aimed at promoting national reconciliation after periods of violent conflict. The symposium will take place in Storrs later this year, in partnership with Harvard, Boston, and Brandeis Universities.