Doris Salcedo was born in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1958, where she still lives. She arrived in Salvador, Brazil, on July 17, 1999, overlapping with Cai Guo-Qiang, Chen Zhen, Domenico de Clario, Kara Walker, and Nari Ward. She worked with a group of twenty children and teenagers from Stampaxé, in collaboration with the educator Raimundo Aquila.
Salcedo was asked to participate in the project in part because her work deals with issues of social violence, because she has worked extensively with victims of violence in her native Colombia, and because of her commitment to her belief that art can function as an instrument of personal and social healing. But since she rarely makes art outside of Colombia, it was agreed that her role in the project would not be to produce a work of art, but to share her perspective on violence, art, and healing with the children. While she welcomed the opportunity to work with children, she was more interested in the fact they were all victims of violence. In this respect, their reality was similar to her own.
Meeting these children was an eye-opening experience. "I do not idealize poverty," Salcedo has stated. "I do not find it poetic. I do not find it beautiful. But in spite of all the problems that poverty brings with it, I saw an amazing energy in these children. They were opinionated, open, and ready to do anything. When I saw that, I felt like I had to give them everything I had. We understood each other very well. We spoke the same language in terms of what we wanted to do and what it means not to have and to be humiliated. They understood very well that the process of working is the process of recovering dignity."
The process was the guiding spirit of Salcedo's collaboration. All the children had missing or murdered family members. All had been persecuted and threatened with violence. But they had no idea that they could redeem this past and transform it into the source of their healing. And they were intrigued when Salcedo told them that she had been able to transform her own life for the better and is even able to make her living by delving into this place and creating art from it, and that they could, too.
Salcedo and the children began by discussing their memories of experiences from their own lives. Each child talked about a story that had changed his or her life, 90 percent of which were about acts of violence that they had experienced themselves. So that they would understand the purpose of verbalizing these stories, Salcedo introduced the children to the philosophy of sickness, healing, and art of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), who believed that all human knowledge derived from art and that the creative principle that lies within everyone was the source of personal, social, and spiritual transformation.
After sharing their stories, Salcedo asked the children to further externalize and exorcise their pain by writing the stories down and by creating objects. "These children had never processed the idea of violence," she has stated. "So when they thought of healing, they felt a sense of liberation. They felt that they could move away from reality toward desire. That's why healing was essential for them. I tried to suggest that there were many ways in which you could heal, including imagining that things could be better. Even though they were not artists, I think that through art they can understand that there are other ways to live than the ones that the police show them."
For the exhibition at the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia, Salcedo contributed a sculpture from her series Atrabiliarios (1992-93). It consists of two small niches cut into the wall at eye level, covered by translucent windows of animal skin stitched directly into the wall. Inside the niches are three shoes. The skin prevents viewers from seeing the shoes clearly. Resembling images one might see in dreams, the work provokes viewers to wonder what happened to the person or persons who wore the shoes. Indeed, Salcedo collected the shoes for the series from the families of victims of violence. They are relics that stand for the remains of the dead.