Activist Objects and the Disappeared


by Martha Dietrich and Penny Harvey

The mothers and grand-mothers of the disappeared gathered every week in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, defying the military regime (1976-1983). They used photographs to invoke the presence of their children and grandchildren. The hugely repressive military regime systematically wiped out / murdered and imprisoned all political opposition. Many thousands disappeared. The women met in silent protest demanding simply to know what had happened to their loved ones. Dismissed by the military as mad women they were nevertheless hard to shake off. Gradually they got international publicity. Their stubborn presence worked to mobilise international public opinion, through the affective force of their claim to the right to know. As mothers and grandmothers they made gendered claims on an aggressive male, military regime whose own right-wing conservative family values could not easily construe such a claim as political – despite its political force.

Our presentation explores the political force of these photographic images and asks how they indirectly display the suffering of disappearance and enact a claim on the state. In the Argentinian case small images of particular people were combined to stake a mass claim that nevertheless remains individuated – through the photos – reminding us that the loss of each mother/grandmother is both particular to them and at the same time one part of a larger public artefact that indexes a shared experience of loss.

This link is to image of the Pirámide de Mayo, the oldest national monument in Buenos Aires, an allegory of Liberty it commemorates the first anniversary of the May Revolution that began the Argentinian Wars of Independence against Spain in 1820. 200 years later the memorial commemorates the disappeared, but the force of the images of state-induced suffering are also channeled by the contemporary social movement that says ‘no’ to the payment of external debt in the face of internal financial crisis, channeling the force of the images to demands for a better future.

On the other side of the Andes, Martha Dietrich has been working with three groups of people deeply involved in the Peruvian ‘dirty war’ that was fought throughout 1980s and early 1990s. One of these groups were Quechua speaking peasant women from the Ayacucho region of the Andes in the rural area most affected by the war. Here colonial oppression and ongoing discrimination was bitterly played out, and peasant populations in particular were subject to violence suffered at the hands of the army, the insurgents and fellow villagers. There were massacres and many disappearances.

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The images are screen shots from Martha’s film “Memories in Conflict”. The woman depicted is Eudosia Conde Quispe. She had gone with Martha to an isolated place, a place where her husband, Alejandro Quispe Achas, had been taken by the military, killed and dumped in a mass grave. Eudosia had failed to recover the body. She had seen it, she knew he had died there. But the body had disappeared when she returned to bury him. She didn’t really know what had happened. Perhaps dogs had ravaged the bodies and scattered the remains. Eudosia was still looking for the body of her husband. She knew he had died in this place, but as she wanders, picking up a little piece of cloth here and a tiny bone fragment there, it becomes clear that she knows there is no ‘body’ to be found. She wants to bring her husband home, but she does not want to bring these pieces of bone home. She is concerned that they might disturb her. She treats them with care, re-buries them, she wants to put down flowers, but does not know where. She talks about how much she misses him, about how she will keep visiting this place, keep looking for him, wanting and needing his company – wanting somebody to talk to and share her life with. The bone indexes the death and registers the incompletion, the lack of burial, and induces fear in its enduring capacity to unsettle.

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Later in the film we see Eudosia on a march in Lima. Pinned to her is the image of her husband. The photo takes us by surprise. Eudosia, now in her 40s, is wearing the photo of a very young man. The years of living without him register with a new poignancy. Despite the many and important differences between the struggles in Peru and in Argentina there are similarities in how these photos are mobilised. In both cases the images have become part of a global human rights language, a means by which claims over the past can be made. But, they are also used to make claims on the future, integrated into demands for better living conditions and a greater sense of social inclusion. Much is written about the violence of disappearance and how this kind of open-ended loss motivates a continued search for closure. But what of the images and the objects, the small pieces of bone and cloth? What forces activate these objects? The photograph that Eudosia pins to her body creates a sense of both proximity and distance. The body that has disappeared and can no longer be found or identified, the person who is no longer there as companion, is made present as somebody with a face, a name and perhaps a story. At the same time the image invokes a sense of rupture. The image of the husband is the image of a young man, from another time. The image is also decontextualised in that it does not invoke his relationship to Eudosia, but points instead to more bureaucratic concerns. These black and white images, often the last remaining depiction of a loved one, are official photos that nevertheless register the existence of a citizen – and activate the claims on the state of those who survive them.

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