For the few remaining women of Calama in Chile’s Atacama desert, September 11 holds a terrifying meaning. They understand the pain of watching forensic investigators meticulously scour through particles of dust, seeking to retrieve the tiniest fragments of lives brutally taken from the world. ‘Chile under Pinochet would become the experimenting ground for an economic project that inspired both Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher and went by the name of neoliberalism. But it was also an experimenting laboratory for the torture and enforced disappearance of human beings.
During the 16 years of Pinochet’s reign, 1,100 people were officially registered as ‘forcibly disappeared’. Only 104 bodies were ever found, although local communities put this figure much higher. Some were abducted due to their political associations and beliefs, others for sexual abuse. And some were just randomly selected to send the message that nobody was immune to the threat of vanishment.
Prof Brad Evans
How can you visualise something which is defined by absence? How do we imagine the absence of a body? And how do we engage people in the topic like disappearance which many may not have personal experiences of, yet still affects hundreds of thousands of people around the globe on a daily basis?
‘Disappearance is one of those topics that people don’t like to discuss or talk about. There’s a strange silence around disappearance’ says Brad Evans, political philosopher, theorist, and Director of Bath’s Centre for the Study of Violence. Over recent years, Evans has focused much of his work on understanding ‘disappearance’ and its impacts on societies.
Since 2017, he has co-directed State of Disappearance, a major research project which addressed complex themes such as enforced disappearance, femicide, slavery, genocide and indigenous persecution. Through it, he has sought to a shine a light on a topic often side-lined by the media, yet one he describes as the ‘ultimate act’ of political violence.
Central to the project has been the idea of fusing political theory, philosophy and sociology with art. Evans’ collaborator on the project is abstract artist Chantal Meza whose visceral artwork underscores concepts discussed and aims to help open up the work to different audiences and kick-start a new conversation about disappearance.
In Meza’s home country of Mexico, disappearance has been a live issue throughout her life. The number of people deemed missing in Mexico is now over 100,000 – a figure which may in fact be far higher. Last year, the UN raised concerns over the “alarming number” of disappearances and “almost absolute impunity” which enable disappearances to continue.
'The seven years I’ve been consciously dealing with enforced disappearances haven’t been enough when it comes to explain the impacts and intricacies of this issue. From the moment I was born, it was already a problem in my country, and although I was not particularly affected by it, as I became more sensitised I was reminded of things I noticed as a child,' she explains.
And yet Mexico is not alone. According to Amnesty International, from Mexico to Syria, Bangladesh to Laos and Bosnia to Spain, enforced disappearance is a growing problem violating fundamental human rights. Its victims are not just those who have disappeared, but also their loved ones and the ripple effects it has within communities and societies at large.
‘The strategy of disappearance is so shocking and difficult to comprehend because the violence is rationalised, professionalised and calculated. It is never random, even if its targets appear to have been arbitrarily selected. Its currency is emotional fear that infects the population like a virus, creating a climate of suspicion and betrayal,’ reflects Evans.
In search of a different language
Fuelled by her own experiences of living with disappearance in Mexico, in 2017 Meza sat down to paint. The result: 75 original works which explore themes of obscurity, mental anguish, ghosting, the fragmentation of life and the voiding of existence. At the heart of this work, she explains, is making visible what has been forgotten or is not spoken about.
‘Disappearance is marked by a devastating absence. It constitutes a form of violence that rips open a wound in time. It offers no viable recovery and no meaningful justice. And for those who are left to live, the terror is unending,” she says. “Sometimes words fail us, we need another language and so we create art because that speaks differently.”
At Centrespace Gallery in Bristol, off the narrow and graffiti-clad St Leonard’s Lane, visitors of all ages and backgrounds came in drawn by Meza’s artwork. Over two weeks approximately 2000 people visited, each with their own experiences, including some with deep personal reflections on the topic. Both Evans and Meza were surprised with the connection people felt.
“You don’t know where people are coming from and how personal experiences shape how they engage with this topic,” says Meza. For Evans, not only does Meza’s abstract artwork help to capture the essence of the issue, but it has also helped to break down barriers to engagement.
“The importance of art in collaboration with academic work in a public setting has been crucial to this work. What art allows is a loosening of identities, a setting down of certain fixed dogmatic positions. Once people let their guard down, that’s precisely when a different conversation and different kind of politics is possible,” he says.
Not only has this helped to engage a wider public in the topic, but it’s also been hugely beneficial to students too. During the two-week exhibition, Evans and colleagues from the Department of Politics, Languages & international Studies brought across undergraduate and postgraduate students to Bristol engage in lessons in a wholly different way.
“It was a revelation. From a distance, I watched as the students slowly let their guard down, speaking freely about what disappearance meant to them and their own life experiences and becoming unsettled in ways that allowed for their own fixed positions to be challenged,” Evans says.
Sharing learning about disappearance
In addition to the gallery space, a series of public talks held during the exhibition helped to consider a broader set of issues pertaining to disappearance today and from history. These brought together academics, artists and advocates, including co-hosts UK-based charity Locate International, to discuss issues such as terrorism, race, slavery and disappearance.
One of the talks was delivered by Lucy Easthope, Professor in Practice of Risk and Hazard at Durham and Honorary Professor in Mass Fatalities and Pandemics within Bath’s Centre for Death & Society. Her talk ‘Forensic uncertainty and ambiguous loss’, reflected on two decades work in disaster management and her 2022 book ‘When the Dust Settles.’
Centre for Death & Society Director Dr Kate Woodthorpe said: “It was a pleasure to welcome Professor Lucy Easthope back to her undergraduate city of Bristol and to hear about her experiences of working in disaster response and disaster planning in relation to disappearance.
“Lucy was particularly brilliant at connecting her work and responding to Chantal's powerful artwork, and how her imagery reflected forensic uncertainty and disappearance within disasters. There is huge connection between violence, conflict, disaster and loss, which was reflected and captured during the discussion.”
Lucy added: “To spend time with this exhibition is to be changed forever - it is intensely thought provoking, visceral and transformative. The places it takes you to have never been more necessary to explore and understand."
The same sentiment was also offered by another of the events speakers, Professor Richard English, Director of the George Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queens University in Belfast, who added, it was “a vivid and powerful exhibition, evocatively original and also a wonderful setting for debate, discussion and honest reflection.”
A catalyst for change
Buoyed by the success of the exhibition and the powerful connections made in Bristol, Meza and Evans now plan to take the exhibition to London in February where it will feature as part of the biggest gathering of Humanitarian actors, along with Belfast in the summer.
There are also hopes that a longer-term display might be found with conversations currently being held with various partners, including the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, in the United States.
“For me it’s so important to recognise that this project started with Chantal’s artwork. Through it we have had so many conversations with academics and advocacy groups and a result we now have a global network of academics talking about disappearance. None of this would have happened without the art,” says Evans.