Doris Salcedo is a Colombian sculptor who has created large-scale, site-specific installations in Turkey, Italy, Great Britain, and her native Colombia. Her work is rooted in the social and political issues of her own country and deals with its forgotten people. Her constant theme has been to evoke the violence in Colombia as she memorializes its victims, who have been killed, who have ‘disappeared’, or who have been forgotten because of war, civil unrest, and drug wars.
Salcedo earned her B.F.A. degree from Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in 1980 and her M.F.A. from New York University in 1984. She returned to Colombia to teach at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia.
Salcedo uses everyday materials to evoke the absence of people in sculptures and installations. Her early works combined domestic furniture with textiles and clothing. In 2003, she made an installation in a small street in Istanbul by stacking 1,600 wooden chairs in the small space between two buildings. The chairs are tumbled together yet present an even surface to passersby. Turkey has had a legacy of violence in uprooting Greeks and Jews from their buildings, and her stacked chairs suggest the huge number of these people. Her work was more than a response to this one specific event in Turkey. It addressed the universality of being displaced and the chaos of being uprooted. Salcedo states, “Every work of art is political, is breaking new ground, and is against the status quo.”
In 2005, she reworked one of the rooms of the Castello di Rivoli in Turin by extending the vaulted brick ceiling to evoke the idea of incarceration and entombment. In 2006, in Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, her installation “Atrabiliarios” was one of her most powerful depictions of violence. She depicted the loss of life by showing the worn shoes of people, mainly women, who mysteriously disappeared from their homes. She cut niches into the plaster wall and put the shoes in as relics of these victims. She sealed the niches with a membrane of cow bladder which she sutured into the plaster. Barely visible through the membrane, the shoes were a haunting evocation of the dead.
In 2007, she created “Shibboleth,” a more than 500-foot-long chasm running the length of the Turbine Hall at London’s Tate Modern to symbolize exclusion and separation. After the installation closed, the crack was filled leaving a memorial scar as a reminder about “borders” and “the experience of immigration.”
“Plegaria Muda” consisted of sculptural objects that sprouted blades of grass and alluded to an abandoned graveyard, inspired by the thousands of missing persons in Colombia. These people had been killed and passed off as guerrilla casualties. This work toured worldwide from 2010-2013.
In 2016, Salcedo created “Sumando Ausencias”. The title translates as ‘adding absence’, with the work taking the form of a banner, made from thousands of feet of fabric onto which was written in ash the names of just 7% of the victims of Colombia’s civil war. “. . . the names are poorly written, almost erased, because we are already forgetting these violent deaths.” Saucedo worked with many volunteers to stitch the banners together to cover the entire Plaza Bolivar, the main square in Bogota.
While Salcedo usually lives and works in the city of Bogota, she currently lives in a house in the mountains three hours away because of the Coronavirus. She regrets that she does not have a studio in which to sculpt but does have a place where she can draw. The drawings, she is now working on, are part of her project “Bosque de Humo” (“Smoke Forest”), which is about the 50,000 to 200,000 murdered people who have disappeared from Colombia and are now forgotten.
She found one particular place where crematory ovens were put up by the paramilitary between 2002 and 2004. After the soldiers burned the bodies of the people they killed, they sprayed their ashes with water. Salcedo was doubly horrified when she found out that this site was taken over and made into a coriander field. The people who once ‘disappeared’ have now ‘disappeared’ again. She states, “I’m trying to draw in a way that brings these molecules back to life.”
While her work began with remembering the victims of her own country, in recent years her work has expanded beyond Colombia and into the Middle East and Europe. Her “Palimpsest” refers to the people who have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to emigrate into Europe. The names of some of them are written in crafted stone and through them appear water droplets that reveal the names of other victims. “All of my work, not only the public pieces, but all of my work is about mourning.”
While Salcedo had the first retrospective of her work at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art which traveled to the Guggenheim Museum and to Miami’s Perez Art Museum from 2015-2016, she has also participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions in museums worldwide. Some include Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Palacio de Cristal, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; Harvard Art Museums; Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas; Tate Modern; Tate Britain; New Museum, New York ;and museums in Japan, Mexico, Portugal, and Italy.