The invitation to think about contemporary aesthetics in commemorative practices as forms of redress for victims of gross human rights violations came from the legal scholar Yolanda Sierra León at the Universidad Externado de Colombia. Her research addresses the challenge that victims, their legal representatives, and judges encounter when making demands for symbolic forms of reparations.1 At first, I was skeptical and wondered: What could a group of academics, from the comfort of our universities, say about reparations for victims who have endured unimaginable pain and loss? What role could art play for victims who live in precarious conditions, such as the eight million internally displaced in Colombia, the majority of whom often lack proper shelter, food, or security? Despite my initial apprehension, over the past four years I have learned valuable lessons about the power of the symbolic in reparations. The symbolic sphere can recognize victims, activate hope and the ability to imagine an alternative reality, which are vital for resilience and fostering social transformation. Furthermore, victims bring their private suffering to public light in order to ensure their losses are not in vain and that no one suffers their fate ever again. They have taught me that successful reparations connect to truth, justice, and the legal mandates of “measures of satisfaction” and “guarantees of nonrepetition.” The success of symbolic reparations depends on memorial practices that recognize the victims' value, but in cases of gross human rights violations, also help to change the conditions in which violations occur. In order to expand the potential of symbolic reparations, I suggest we consider sites where processes of repair can take place. These sites become symbolically charged when they are the outcome of dialogical processes of cocreation as well as dialectic aesthetics.

The term reparations raises concerns, given the impossibility of restoring what has been lost. However, it is important that reparations not be confused with restitution, repatriation, restoration, indemnizations, or pecuniary forms of compensation. Even restitution in cases of dispossessed lands or repatriation of looted patrimony are never complete returns to circumstances prior to violations. Victims do not consider indemnizations to be significant forms of reparations. Many reject monetary compensation as “blood money.”2 Reparations legislation takes into account the impossibility of restoring the past. In fact, there are instances where returning to prior circumstances is far from desirable, especially when violence is a manifestation of enduring structural problems.3 In the context of systematic rights violations and discrimination, such as the legacy of slavery, Margaret Urban Walker argues that the objective of reparations should be the recalibration of a society's moral baseline.4 Symbolic reparations, through commemorative practices, can guide societies toward structural problems in order to challenge injustices.

While memorials need not equal fixed monuments, many victims request bronze sculptures, typically featuring a figure or group of figures, precisely because they serve as conventional recognitions of social worth. These traditional monuments may serve as vehicles through which victims and their families claim their rights and value in the public space, yet other scholars have argued that they can also absolve societies from responsibility to remember.5 This dynamic has been complicated over the past decades, as countries worldwide have sponsored memorials to their own atrocities. Holocaust memorial scholar James Young shows how German artists tackled a complex postwar society with “counter-monumental” practices; that is, self-questioning interventions that hand over to the living, and to society as a whole, the burden of memory-work, vigilance, and when necessary, action.6 Rather than producing material works of art, many contemporary artists have developed dialogical aesthetics that privilege processes, performances, participation, and interventions in the public sphere.7 Social art and architectural practices can inspire alternative modes of commemoration with eyes on social transformation. In this essay, I argue that sites of repair can be the product of dialogical processes and dialectical aesthetics that reflect on past atrocities and cocreate a more just future.

To enter the debate on memorialization practices and expand the reparative potential of symbolic reparations, in 2016 I joined a group of humanities scholars to create the Symbolic Reparations Research Project (SRRP).8 The SRRP provides policy recommendations on the role of art and aesthetic commemoration in reparations for victims/survivors of human rights violations in the Americas. In addition, we have authored guidelines for the use of arts in symbolic reparations addressing the Inter-American System for Human Rights (IASHR).9 Our firm belief in art's capacity to cultivate structural change has helped us to conceptualize alternative modes of symbolic reparations that foreground the centrality of victims, the importance of collaborative and participatory processes, and the power of aesthetics.

Independently, I am working on a book called “The Art of Mutual Recognition: Symbolic Reparations and Institution Building in Colombia's Peace Process.” I am studying public memorials, museums, and other aesthetic practices of memorialization within the ongoing and complex peace process unfolding in Colombia today. The United Nations and the IASHR are paying close attention to Colombia's transitional justice, because it has set in place the most ambitious reparations program to date. The country has instituted three official mechanisms associated with integral reparations. These include Law 975, known as the Law of Peace and Justice (2005); the 1448 Law of Victims (2011); and the Final Agreement between FARC-EP and the Colombian government (2016), which created several official institutions like the Victims Unit, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, and the Truth Commission. In all cases of transitional justice worldwide, and certainly in Colombia's peace process, the number of victims and the extent of damages far outweigh the resources dedicated to repair. Symbolic reparations play a critical role because of limited resources, but also because they are the only forms of redress for victims prior to 1985 or for victims who have already been through one of these judicial or reparative processes.10

If Colombia is to reach a postconflict era, it is crucial to recognize the power of spaces to amplify the affirmations of conflict resolution. The Final Peace Agreement between the FARC-EP and the Colombian State acknowledged the importance of such symbolic places. To commemorate the end of the conflict, it stipulates that the FARC's yielded weapons be melted down to make three monuments in the capital, Bogotá; in Havana, where the peace negotiations took place; and at the United Nations building in New York. For Bogotá's project, artist Doris Salcedo and architect Carlos Granada prioritized infrastructural support and human engagement with the creation of Fragmentos (2018) (figs. 1 and 2). Rather than a triumphal monument, they designed an exhibition hall close to the seats of central government destined to host art exhibitions for the following fifty-two years, to mark the timespan from the 1964 emergence of the FARC to the 2016 final accord. Granada designed a modern structure that reveals and dialogs with the ruins of the original building, reminding viewers of the destructive Bogotazo riots of April 9, 1948.11 Salcedo, with the participation of eighteen victims of sexual violence, hammered zinc templates to mold the weapon's metal into irregular tiles for the flooring. Salcedo describes this poetic space as “anti-monumental.” Both artist and architect designed a dialectic environment that embodies the suffering and collective mourning of the victims of sexual violence while also creating a space for creativity and future artistic interventions.12 It is a site for reflection on the brutality of war and for imagining a peaceful future. Thus, Fragmentos materializes symbolic reparations as a space where reparative actions can take place.


Doris Salcedo and Carlos Granada, Fragmentos, 2018, Bogotá, Colombia. Photo by Ana María Reyes.


Doris Salcedo and Carlos Granada, Fragmentos, 2018, Bogotá, Colombia. Photo by Ana María Reyes.


Doris Salcedo and Carlos Granada, Fragmentos (flooring detail), 2018, Bogotá. Photo by Ana María Reyes.


Doris Salcedo and Carlos Granada, Fragmentos (flooring detail), 2018, Bogotá. Photo by Ana María Reyes.

While the design of Fragmentos generated a powerful dialectic between mourning and creativity, its conception lacked the dialogical collaboration necessary to recognize the stakeholders as cocreators. The fraught political landscape in which the “anti-monument” emerged required expedited production, as the candidate who opposed the peace process, Ivan Duque, prepared to occupy the presidency. This may account for the absent dialogical process, which should have included victims' organizations as well as the FARC-EP, the military, and others involved in the Havana negotiations. As a form of symbolic reparations to the victims, it was imperative that the process respectfully recognize their agency, not just as participants or recipients of reparations benefits but as rights holders and as cocreators. In this case, victims of sexual violence participated by providing the manual labor that materialized Salcedo's intellectual vision. Learning from this example, the aesthetics of commemorative sites should embody processes of collaboration and mutual recognition so that the resultant spaces can serve as symbolically charged platforms that foster trust and ethical relations, as well as contributing to the conditions of nonrepetition.

The reconstruction of El Salado's town center demonstrates the importance of a cocreative process where the architectural aesthetics recognize the community's traditions, resilience, and agency and the innovative potential of collaboration (fig. 3).13 El Salado witnessed Colombia's most gruesome paramilitary massacre in 2000, which victimized and displaced its entire population. When the town residents (saladeros) returned, they found the town in ruins. The rebuilding was a process of cocreation between the saladeros, the social architect Simón Hosie and his colleague Omar Durango, and the funding consortium Fundación Semana.


Simón Hosie, architect, Casa del Pueblo, 1999–2004, El Salado, Colombia. Photo courtesy of Simón Hosie.


Simón Hosie, architect, Casa del Pueblo, 1999–2004, El Salado, Colombia. Photo courtesy of Simón Hosie.

When the massacre rendered inaccessible the communal rituals and public spaces of El Salado, Hosie and Durango learned that the returning residents rewove communal bonds through cleaning. Their fear forced them to band together day and night, clearing their buildings and public areas of overgrown vegetation, which had overtaken the town in the few years it had been abandoned. In order to symbolically and psychologically reclaim the public space, Hosie suggested a ritual cleansing of the multipurpose court and the site of the massacre-spectacle. Not everyone was on board initially, since the rusted goalposts and the court's painted demarcations had been a labor of love for the children by many of the deceased. Hosie describes these demarcations as the boundaries between the permissible and the forbidden, a line that was violated in a horrifying manner by the armed combatants. Nevertheless, this difficult and painful negotiation served as community rapprochement. Eventually the saladeros recognized that the space had been changed forever and should serve as sacred ground. Through a collective cleaning ritual, the cancha (court) was made into the campo de la memoria (memory field).

The actual cleansing lasted only one afternoon, yet the process leading to this powerful ritual took a full year, which prepared the saladeros for renovating their town center. During this time span, Hosie's team put together a plano vivo, a study that included lengthy conversations with each one of the residents concerning their memories, living habits, and their relation to the town spaces. The sustained dialogical processes ensured that the structures would embody trust, respect, and recognition of all those involved.

The dialogical and respectful exchanges among Hosie, Durango, and the saladeros were crucial to the design's symbolic charge. Drawing on the study produced by this process of mutual trust building and recognition, Hosie designed a town center that fused local traditions with innovative aesthetics (fig. 4). The center includes two areas—the Cultural Field and the Memory Field—both establishing a strong dialectical relation between grief and transformation, the need to remember and the need move forward, the pain of the past and hope for the future.


Simón Hosie, architect, Centro Cultural El Salado, 1999–2004, El Salado, Colombia. Photo courtesy of Simón Hosie.


Simón Hosie, architect, Centro Cultural El Salado, 1999–2004, El Salado, Colombia. Photo courtesy of Simón Hosie.

Unequivocally, El Salado's rebuilding is a model of collaboration, aesthetics of mutual recognition, and trust building between the different stakeholders. Developing the town's infrastructure was crucial for residents to rebuild their lives after devastation. However, it fell short in terms of guarantees of nonrepetition, which requires acknowledging why, not just how, the massacre occurred in the first place. If the structural conditions that allowed the massacre are not addressed, this reparations case will not stop the same atrocity from occurring elsewhere. Creating the conditions for nonrepetition requires public access to truth and historical memory. According to the American Convention on Human Rights, the preservation of public memory conforms victims' fundamental rights to truth and information.14 Official archives, and public buildings that make them available, serve to generate ongoing processes that hold great reparative potential.15

The Memorial da Resistênça in São Paulo (2009) is an example of the State's compliance with making public information pertaining to human rights.16 Part of the Pinacoteca do Estado, this memorial is a monument organization that preserves and grants public access to the state archives concerning repression and resistance during the Brazilian Republic since 1889, with a particular focus on the repressive periods of the Estado Novo (1930–45) and the military dictatorship (1964–85). As a symbolic space or site of memory with great charge, it is situated in the building that served as the Departamento Estadual de Ordem Política e Social de São Paulo (Deops/SP) from 1940 to 1983, which orchestrated clandestine and criminal activities. The Memorial to Resistance is tasked with the preservation of historical memory and the development of participative citizenship, as well as creating the conditions for nonrepetition of political oppression.

Repurposing and redesigning this site, where the intellectual authorship of atrocities took place, positions the Memorial to Resistance with other former sites of repression, such as the Espacio de Memoria y Derechos Humanos in the former campus of the Escuela de Mécanica de la Armada (ESMA) in Argentina, and Villa Grimaldi and Londres 38 in Chile. These “sites of conscience” house historical memory and promote cultures of human rights that can be dialogically generated through interactions between diverse organizations, disciplines, and perspectives.17 They host archives, exhibitions, and artistic interventions that promote historical awareness, civic vigilance, and creative collaborations. In this way, these sites serve to activate the public space and allocate safe zones for working through artistic and political agonism that are protected and sponsored by the State.18 The renovated and repurposed structures aesthetically embody the dialectic between past atrocities and future engagements.

Following this logic, it is crucial for social repair to restore and preserve historical sites where symbolic interventions can occur. For instance, in 2011, when Brazil was preparing for the World Cup and Summer Olympics, workers on the Rio de Janeiro waterfront discovered the Cais do Valongo underneath, the wharf of disembarkation for approximately one million forcibly enslaved Africans (fig. 5).19 After much public debate, the wharf was uncovered and preserved in its unaltered form as the first site of memory in the Trail of African Heritage Celebration.20 Since then, the Mães of Candomblé have begun to perform yearly cleansing rituals.21 The Cais do Valongo has also routinely serves as a theatrical backdrop for samba and capoeira performances, thus becoming a historical site of conscience and a site for Afro-Brazilian cultural and spiritual affirmation. The aesthetic languages of these performances serve as remembrance of painful pasts and celebration of the resilience, tenacity, and creativity of Afro-Brazilian communities.22


Cais do Valongo, 2012. Photo by Halley Pacheco de Oliveira (public domain).


Cais do Valongo, 2012. Photo by Halley Pacheco de Oliveira (public domain).

Societies can also repair relations by retrieving repressed narratives and correcting the historical record. One illustrative case was the bicentennial celebrations that the residents of Mulaló staged as a public street procession on July 20, 2010, to mark Colombia's independence from Spain. They used the occasion to put forth an alternative narrative casting the wars of independence as a small battle in a longer struggle for emancipation protagonized by enslaved activists. With state and municipal funds, theater director Jhon Jairo Perdomo produced Memoria Viva, a “MACRO-escena” street-theater parade.23 The vast majority of the procession consisted of Afro-Colombians battling with different groups of captors, traffickers, and soldiers. Male and female actors wore costumes of different eras and places to enact struggles representing the long and vast trajectory of abolitionism. Men dressed in nineteenth-century British official uniforms indicated that the struggle was not only against Spanish colonialism but for transnational human rights. Entering the procession at the end, immediately following a wrestling match with Spanish royal soldiers, were actors representing the foundational figures revered in the national pantheon. In this narrative, they played a supportive rather than decisive role. The massive parade of anti-slavery battles preceding the criollo Liberation Campaign contextualized the wars of independence within a longer history of colonial brutality. The title of the production, Memoria Viva, evokes the tableaux vivant and theatre genres, but also frames historical memory as living, performative, and in perpetual need of reevaluation. Memoria Viva is a case of cooperation between state sponsors, creative agents, and the community, where the state did not dictate the reinterpretation of history but acted as facilitator. In this way, it demonstrated trust in the community, while the residents of Mulaló claimed stakes in the nation.

Symbolic spaces need not be physical locations but can be created through print or digital media. The IASHR and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), consistently affirm that victims play central roles in expressing their own historical memory. One successful example is the Friendly Agreement Marta Lúcia Álvarez Giraldo v. Colombia, brokered by the Inter-American Commission.24 As a form of symbolic reparation to Marta Álvarez, a victim of sexual discrimination while in state custody, the government agreed to publish her testimonial in 2017. Entitled Mi historia la cuento yo (I tell my own story), the book granted Álvarez agency in recounting her twenty-three-year struggle for conjugal visits, denied to her because of systematic discrimination against the LGBTQ community. The government sent this testimonial to public libraries, law schools, and other state agencies. In amplifying her voice, the process highlighted her condition as rights defender and as victim of systematic social discrimination.

As humanities scholars, we can accompany victims and their legal representatives to help expand the potential of symbolic reparations aiming at the social transformations necessary for nonrepetition. Our investigations into the politics of representation, the power of the symbolic, aesthetic processes and performances, and the efficacy of the built environment can offer valuable contributions to this multivocal and multidisciplinary conversation. Indeed, much of the work we already do can be reparative, in terms of historical retrieval and promoting aesthetic practices that catalyze future actions. As academics and experts, we can play strategic mediating roles to level asymmetric relations between states and victims. Furthermore, our visual training serves to critically assess the politics of representation imperative for memorials to primum non nocere. That is, memorials must recognize the value of victims without perpetuating or solidifying social stigmas rehearsed through violence. Understanding the impact of the built environment on human behavior helps us imagine spaces where processes of social repair can take place. Finally, we are pedagogically trained to foster the critical, creative, and ethical imagination necessary to cocreate the conditions of nonrepetition.



Yolanda Sierra León and Manuel Albarracín Pinzón, eds., Reparación simbólica: jurisprudencia, cantos y tejidos, Bogotá: Universidad del Externado, 2018.


Angélica Zamora Prieto, “La reparación a partir de la experiencia de las víctimas: los casos de Villatina y Trujillo,” in Reparar en Colombia: Los dilemas en contextos de conflicto, pobreza y exclusión, ed. Catalina Díaz Gómez, Nelson Camilo Sánchez, and Rodrigo Uprimmy Yepes (Bogotá: Centro Internacional de la Justica Transicional y Centros de Estudios de Derecho, Justicia y Sociedad, 2009).


For an elaboration on this point, see Ana María Reyes, “The Monument to the Children of Villatina: Commemorating Innocent Child Victims in the Context of Lethally Stigmatized Youth in Colombia,” special issue, Visual Communication 18, no. 3 (August 2019): 379–98.


Margaret Urban Walker, “Restorative Justice and Reparations,” Journal of Social Philosophy 37, no. 3 (2006): 377–95; Margaret Urban Walker, Moral Repair: Reconstructing Moral Relations after Wrongdoing (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006).


Reyes, “Monument to the Children,” 387–91.


For a discussion of countermemorials, see the following publications by James E. Young: “The Topography of German Memory” The Journal of Art 1 (March 1991); “The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in Germany Today,” Critical Inquiry 18, no. 2 (1992): 267–96; The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993); At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000); and “Germany's Holocaust Memorial Problem—and Mine,” The Public Historian 24, no. 4 (Fall 2002): 65–80.


For dialogical aesthetics, see Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1993); Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum, 2000); Hélio Oiticica, “Position and Program” and “General Scheme of the New Objectivity,” in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002); Doris Sommer, The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); and Claire Bishop, Artificial Hell: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso Books, 2012).


The founding members include Yolanda Sierra, José Falconi, Robin Greeley, Michael Orwicz, Fernando Rosenberg, Doris Sommer, and Marco Abarca, since then joined by Lisa Laplante.


“Guidelines on Art as a Means of Symbolic Reparation for Victims of Gross Human Rights Violations,” Symbolic Reparations Research Project (José Falconi, Ana María Reyes, Robin Greeley, Michael Orwicz, Fernando Rosenberg, Doris Sommer, and Marco Abarca),


Ministry of Justice, “Justicia transicional en Colombia,”


María Belén Sáez de Ibarra, “Un lugar común,” in Fragmentos, ed. Sara Malagón Llano (Bogotá: Publicaciones Semana, 2018), 4–7.


Red de Mujeres Víctimas y Profesionales, “Testimonio: Nuestra reparación,” in Malagón Llano, Fragmentos, 8–9.


For a longer discussion of this case, see Ana María Reyes, “The New Cultural Center in El Salado,”


See La colegiación obligatoria de periodistas (artículos 13 y 29 de la Convención Americana sobre Derechos Humanos), Opinión Consultiva OC-5/85, November 13, 1985, Serie A no. 5, para. 30; Caso López Álvarez v. Honduras, Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas, Sentencia, February 1, 2006, Serie C no. 141, para. 163; and Caso Claude Reyes y otros v. Chile, Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas, Sentencia, September 19, 2006, Serie C no. 151, para. 76. Cited in Corte IDH, Caso Gomes Lund y otros (“Guerrilha do Araguaia”) v. Brasil, Sentencia, November 24, 2010, para. 196.


See Asamblea General de la OEA, Resoluciones AG/RES. 1932 (XXXIII-O/03), June 10, 2003.


Corte IDH, Caso Herzog y otros v. Brasil, Serie C no. 353, March 15, 2018,


For the International Coalition for Sites of Conscience, see


On aesthetic and political agonism, see Chantal Mouffe, “Agonistic Politics and Artistic Practices,” in Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically, 85–105; “Memorial da Resistênça em São Paulo,”


Ana Lucia Araujo, Shadows of the Slave Past: Memory, Heritage, and Slavery, Routledge Studies in Cultural History (New York: Routledge, 2014), 98–101; Ana Lucia Araujo, “Public Memory of Slavery in Brazil,” in Slavery, Memory and Identity: National Representations and Global Legacies, ed. Douglas Hamilton, Kate Hodgson, and Joel Quirk (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012), 115–30; Camilla Querin, “Heritage Sites: How Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous Communities Leveraged Archaeology and Architecture to Protect Their Histories and Challenge the Hegemonic Heritage Discourse,” Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture 2, no. 1 (February 2020): 82–91.


Araujo, Shadows of the Slave Past, 99.


Flávia Villela, “Ritual da lavagem do Cais do Valongo homenageia escravos que desembarcaram no porto no século 19,” EBC Brasil, July 6, 2013,


Sandra de Sá Carneiro and Márcia Leitão Pinheiro, “Cais do Valongo: patrimonialização de locais, objetos e herança africana,” Religião e Sociedade 35, no. 2 (2015): 384–401.


Bicentennario Municipio Yumbo, “Bolívar y Palomo revivieron sus pasos en Mulaló” [Bolivar and Palomo revive their steps in Mulaló], July 21, 2010,


A Friendly Agreement, in contrast to a contentious case, is one where a solution is reached outside the Inter-American Court through the Inter-American Commission.