The Columbia Center for Social Difference launched the Zip Code Memory Project on Thursday with an artists’ roundtable discussing the role of memorial pieces in collective grief and healing.

On Thursday, the Columbia Center for Social Difference celebrated the public launch of the Zip Code Memory Project: Practices of Justice with a virtual artists roundtable, titled “Reparative Memory.” The roundtable featured five artists, Michael Arad, Susan Meiselas, Doris Salcedo, Hank Willis Thomas, and Mabel O. Wilson (Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation), discussing their work in the creation of public memorials in response to various histories of violence around the world. The event was moderated by Carol Becker, Dean of Columbia University School of the Arts.

The Zip Code Memory Project was formed in response to the unique effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Harlem, Washington Heights, and South Bronx, seeking to find ways to memorialize the profound loss caused by COVID-19 and honor community healing through working with local artists and community organizations. 

In particular, Thursday’s roundtable, which examined how each artist has incorporated these themes into a particular memorial project, sought to answer questions of how the losses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the disproportionate effect of these losses on communities of color, can be memorialized in a way that acknowledges the ways that the pandemic itself has exposed structural inequities that contribute to those losses.

The evening began with an introduction by the co-founders of the Zip Code Project, Marianne Hersch (William Peterfield Trent Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia), and Diana Taylor (Professor of Performance Studies and Spanish at NYU). 

The event’s first presenter was Mabel O. Wilson (Nancy and George Rupp Professor in Architecture at Columbia), discussing her work designing an installation at the University of Virginia which honors the hundreds of people enslaved by the university throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. For over six months, Wilson and her collaborators engaged with both the university community and the surrounding city of Charlottesville, seeking to host discussions about how to create a memorial that would honor the lives of those enslaved at UVA without minimizing the legacy of the atrocity, or its profound impact on the Charlottesville community into the present day. 

The result was a multifaceted installation that honored both as many individual enslaved people as possible and the lasting legacy of enslavement on the UVA community. The memorial includes spaces for reflection and gathering, a path with one step for each year that people were enslaved on the UVA campus, and perhaps most strikingly, a wall commemorating individual people enslaved at UVA through “memory marks”—etchings that acknowledge the lives of each enslaved person at UVA, even when their names were erased by historical records. 

The installation has since become a site of both gathering and demonstration for the university’s communities of color and continues to be a living memorial, the names of enslaved people being added to the memorial regularly as they are discovered. 

As part of her discussion of the design process for the memorial, Wilson elaborated on the challenges of honoring those who historical archives have attempted to erase. Though many of those enslaved on UVA’s campus barely exist in historical records, Wilson did have the opportunity to incorporate the memory of one enslaved woman, Isabella Gibbons, enslaved by William Barton Rogers, then a math professor at UVA—one of few enslaved people at UVA of whom there is actually a photograph. 

To properly honor Gibbons, and the lasting legacy of slavery on the UVA campus, Wilson chose to have the granite structure of the memorial carved with an image of Gibbon’s eyes—always watching the university, seeing both its complex history and its path forward.

Wilson was followed by several additional powerful presenters, including artist Doris Salcedo, whose memorial installation in Bogotá, Colombia, honors the victims of sexual violence during the Colombian civil war at the hands of both the military and guerilla armies. The installation, which Salcedo calls a “counter-monument” because its intention is not to celebrate a victory, but acknowledge harm is made up of thousands of tons of firearms—many manufactured within the United States—used by the Colombian guerilla army in the Civil War. 

During her initial design process, Salcedo worked closely with survivors of sexual violence at the hands of the Colombian military or guerilla army, and during the creation of the piece, these survivors were invited to be a part of the process of melting down and hammering these firearms, building them into something new. 

As Salcedo explained during her presentation, the aim of her piece was not to commemorate the war itself but to “produce an image capable of transforming the memories
 of our violent past into a present where hope
 and peaceful
 coexistence could be imagined.

Salcedo’s presentation was followed by architect Michal Arad, who is currently in the process of designing a memorial in Charleston, South Carolina, to the nine victims of a 2017 white supremacist massacre. With the intention of honoring both the victims of the tragedy and the rich history of the Black community in Charleston, Arad and his collaborators—one of which included fellow roundtable guest Hank Willis Thomas—consulted with the community to create a design that honored not just the nine lives taken by the massacre, but honoring the faith that held the nine victims together, and the enduring cultural history of the church throughout the decades of systemic racism that preceded the attack and continue today. 

The end result of Arad’s design is a structure made up of a series of large stones that work together, representing the ways in which the community has formed a network of support both historically and in the aftermath of the tragedy. 

Unlike the evening’s other guests, the fourth presenter, photographer Susan Meisales, whose work captures daily life in the Afro-Portuguese community of Cova de Moura, Portugal, does not deal with the aftermath of a historical tragedy but honors a community shaped by racism, otherness, and erasure. Through photographs taken for Meisales by community members in Cova de Moura, she maps out the areas of the city in which the Afro-Portuguese community thrives, even when more dominant narratives about the culture do not acknowledge their influence. 

However, perhaps the most striking presentation came from conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas, speaking on his work creating installations that memorialize victims of gun violence around the country. 

Inspired by his own experience mourning the death of his cousin, Thomas creates installations around the country that allow the family members of gun violence victims to display items belonging to their fallen loved ones in structures made up of 700 glass bricks, to honor the 700 people killed by gun violence in the United States each week. 

For this piece, Thomas took inspiration from the iconic AIDS quilt, a community art piece first displayed on the National Mall in 1987 to honor those lost to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Much like the iconic installation, Thomas’s work seeks to bring the tragedy—and the urgency—of the gun violence crisis to the forefront of his audience’s minds, an unflinching refusal to let the thousands of lives taken by gun violence each year be forgotten.

The five presentations were followed by an interactive Q&A session with the artists, in which they spoke with Dean Becker on connecting their work back to questions on memorializing the COVID-19 pandemic and elaborated on the larger social messages of their work. 

As both Salcedo and Wilson highlighted during this portion of the evening, one particularly striking theme throughout several of the installations was the representation of the sheer magnitude of the tragedies they memorialize — from the hundreds of bricks that make up Thomas’s installations to the hundreds of thousands of weapons used to create Salcedo’s piece, to the ever-growing list of names on Wilson’s memorial wall. Though vastly diverse in their subject matter, each installation carried a powerful message—refusing to allow those memorialized to be forgotten, even when they exist in systems that want us to forget. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing, making it difficult to theorize how its massive death toll and exposure of systemic inequalities can be memorialized, the projects created by Wilson, Salcedo, Meisales, Arad, and Thomas provide insight on honoring the impact of historic losses while promoting community healing. 

Beautifully articulating what drives the process of memorializing such devastating tragedies, Thomas explained, “my personal story of loss has really become,
 I hope, a part of a much
 larger story of
 healing and catharsis.” As the Zip Code Project grapples with honoring those lost and the surely permanent legacy left by the pandemic in Upper New York City, the artists are hopeful the project’s work can be part of that story.

Thursday’s roundtable was co-presented by the Center for the Study of Social Difference, Columbia University School of the Arts, Columbia World Projects, The Forum at Columbia University, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, The Simon H. Rifkind Center for the Humanities & the Arts at the City College of New York, and The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities. It was the first in a year-long series on “Reparative Memory” hosted by the Zip Code Memory project, in conjunction with Columbia University School of the Arts.

event headline media via Columbia School of the Arts