Erika DeFreitas A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning (no. 60) (2013)

Erika DeFreitas A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning (no. 60) (2013). Inkjet digital print, 30.48 x 45.72 cm. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth. Courtesy of the artist.

Ricky Varghese and Francisco-Fernando Granados



Erika DeFreitas, A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning (2013)

Erika DeFreitas, A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning (2013).
Digital photography, 64 photographs, 30.48 x 45.72 cm each. Installation view at The Art Gallery of Mississauga. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.


The images that make up Erika DeFreitas’s installation A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning (2013) are set in an irregular grid that oscillates between presence and absence. In describing this photographic series, DeFreitas has said that:

[she] started to collect images from newspapers and the Internet, of people grieving publicly. As her collection of images grew, she was drawn to the positioning of people’s hands, and how expressive hands become in moments of grief. A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning is a photographic series where [she] re-enacts the poses of the hands of people in mourning.1

Each pose in the collection of 64 photographs reads as a character. Literal absences punctuate the photograph, creating visual and formal negative space. These voids articulate a silent yet elegiac language of grief—a language that can’t easily be rendered or expressed into speech per se. Each figural void, as presented by DeFreitas, is posed against a theatrical black background and while she wears sober, black garments. Each of these singular poses subtly come forward, emerge as it were from within the background, while areas of skin are illuminated and seem to occasionally glow against the overall darkness. Each gesture is suspended in a moment. Each, carefully studied, is traced into the work through formal and empathetic embodiment. For a visual artist, performance is the presentation; it is the making visible of the moment and the means of production of any given work. The viewers of A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning see an artist stepping into a found pose, fleshing-in a series of reference images thematically linked by otherwise irreparable and ungrievable loss. These embodied compositions draw from an ever-expanding visual archive of human sorrow. They may be considered to be iterations in the iconography of mourning.

DeFreitas’s gestural references range from Michelangelo’s Pieta to journalistic photographs of the affective and emotional impact of contemporary global conflicts. On an emotional level, images of suffering demand a response from the viewer that is often prompted by the framing of such images. The possibility of an ethics of response is dependent on a highly sensitive and careful handling of the images. In DeFreitas’s work, the aesthetic strategy is governed by an ethical strategy. Restaging images of suffering creates distance that paradoxically and perhaps anachronistically re-sensitizes viewers and creates the possibility for empathy between the viewer and the photograph’s subjects. This aesthetic strategy requires sensitivity and focus given the evolution of contemporary visual culture into an onslaught of images that come and go in rapid succession. Without the possibility of contemplation, a viewer’s capacity to respond significantly diminishes, turning these viewers into consumers, not observers.

Corporations like Facebook and Twitter—that feed the endless visual streaming of images—manage and mitigate our responses to images through limited, pre-categorized “likes,” and reduce emotional responses to the affective output of emojis. Instagram, for example, gives users the ability to like and comment on posts by other users. The number of likes and followers amassed by a user becomes the measure of success on the platform. The social media company also employs algorithms that utilize a user’s past engagement and behaviour to determine the ranking of the content that appears on the user’s feed.2 The aesthetic shift caused by this corporate management of the visual removes nuance from images and from a viewer’s response. It restricts the viewer’s perception of depth within the image, turning gesture into a monolithic endeavor. The relationship to the image becomes one of virality, likes, and followers, and about the “content’s” ability to rise above the din created by the app’s more than one billion users. A recent example of this phenomenon is the virality of PAPER magazine’s winter 2014 magazine cover featuring Kim Kardashian West, a celebrity who has amassed more than 133 million followers on Instagram. The images from the magazine were carefully curated and released with an explicit purpose: to #breaktheinternet. In a postmortem about the magazine cover’s popularity on social media, the magazine’s founder David Hershkovits expressed delight at the international attention generated by the images, noting that “[p]rint, radio and TV jumped on the photos and reported the story with breathless excitement, feigning shock and awe. Tweets, likes, shares, comments, Instas and memes came surging forth, a torrent of butt- inspired commentary both delighted and outraged.”3 The gamut of responses to the images became flattened into a conversation about popularity and the ability to divert traffic from other competing images. These digital developments contribute to and follow an established pattern of increasing the speed of visual processing. We might consider this a crisis of vision under the aegis of modernity.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak states that globalization “takes place only in capital and data. Everything else is damage control.”4 The power to see the world, rendered as visual data for consumption, cannot be extricated from the economic and political means that propel and channel the flow of capital. Since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century, photography has re-organized the perception of the planet through depictions of historical moments when sweeping forces of colonization have created wretched, asymmetrical entanglements across geographies. Globalized capital and data has created connections among disparate transcontinental and transnational geographies by establishing uneven patterns of economic and political domination. These globalizing relationships are often violent and follow white supremacist trajectories that cause incalculable harm and suffering. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag draws a connection between instances of colonial violence and photography through her analysis of images of war. Photographer Felice Beato, a naturalized British citizen, travelled across Europe and Asia from the mid- to late- nineteenth century to photograph armed conflicts fought by the United Kingdom.5 He photographed the aftermath of British bombardment at the Sikandar Bagh Palace in Lucknow in 1857, showing scattered piles of bones belonging to people who fought in the Sepoy Rebellion before the mangled courtyard of the building.6 According to Sontag, Beato’s images point “not to losses suffered but to a fearsome exaction of British military might” and constitutes a celebration of such might.7 Images such as his poses the question of the necessity for an ethics of visibility and exposure in the making of images of suffering.

Aesthetic work, such as DeFreitas’s, can engage with images of suffering in a way that is attentive to such an ethics of visibility and exposure thus becoming a form of damage control for the violence perpetrated by colonizing forces. The uneven relationships of domination and submission rooted in colonization and patriarchy, and the deeply felt legacies engendered by the divisions of labour that are thereby established make up the conditions of possibility not only for photography itself and its means of circulation, but at the same time for the suffering that is captured in the artist’s source material. As Spivak has suggested, “globalization can never happen to the sensory equipment of the experiencing being except insofar as it always was implicit in its vanishing outlines.”8 As tangled up as suffering may be in historical and political factors, mourning and suffering are experienced by the individual through their senses, sometimes as pain, sometimes as numbness, and sometimes as the inability to think anything at all.

A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning includes bodies of many kinds. There are, perhaps, easily recognized Catholic priests and devout Muslims. There are Black, white, and Asian people. There are also racially ambiguous bodies. There are women who cover their hair in burqas and hijabs as well as women with up-dos and blowouts. There are soldiers kneeling and saluting, and funeral attendees wailing as they grasp towards a corpse. In her research, DeFreitas indexes visual expressions of suffering not as a means to erase the particularity or specificity of the circumstances of each instance of pain, but rather to suspend these images from a stream that will wash them away and thereby possibly render them irrelevant. The gathering and suspension of these images creates a degree of abstraction that allows a careful viewer to see resonances between disparate people, their bodies, and their affects. Here, equivalencies don’t create hierarchies of suffering because these moments don’t assume to generalize, instead they humanize the figures as sentient beings.

We know, for instance, that as recent as 2016 when Instagram had 500 million users9, the amount of likes per day averaged at about 4.2 billion10. However, long before online image searches and endless digital feeds expanded the field of the visual challenging a viewer’s ability to contemplate a picture in depth, there was skepticism on the part of cultural theorists like Sontag as to whether it is even possible to show images of suffering within conventional art spaces without having their viewing become banal or even normalized. In Regarding the Pain of Others, again, Sontag states that:

[certain] photographs—emblems of suffering, such as the snapshot of the little boy in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, his hands raised, being herded to the transport to a death camp—can be used like memento mori, as objects of contemplation to deepen one’s sense of reality; as secular icons, if you will. But that would seem to demand the equivalent of a sacred or meditative space in which to look at them. Space reserved for being serious is hard to come by in a modern society, whose chief model of a public space is the mega-store (which may also be an airport or a museum). It seems exploitative to look at harrowing photographs of other people’s pain in an art gallery […] Much of the current skepticism about the work of certain photographers of conscience seems to amount to little more than displeasure at the fact that photographs are circulated so diversely; that there is no way to guarantee reverential conditions in which to look at these pictures and be fully responsive to them. Indeed, apart from the settings where patriotic deference to leaders is exercised, there seems no way to guarantee contemplative or inhibiting space for anything now. So far as photographs with the most solemn or heartrending subject matter are art—and this is what they become when they hang on walls, whatever the disclaimers— they partake of the fate of all wall-hung or floor-supported art displayed in public spaces. That is, they are stations along a—usually accompanied—stroll. A museum or gallery visit is a social situation, riddled with distractions, in the course of which art is seen and commented on.11

Sontag is correct in highlighting the importance of context. Her skepticism is properly productive insofar as it sets a high bar for the critical presentation of images, and demands room for contemplation separate from the “mega-store” of the corporatized museum. What Sontag requests, as if it were impossible, is for images of suffering to be suspended into a state that creates a secular echo of the “sacred or meditative.” This generative skepticism issues a challenge for artists and other cultural and knowledge producers interested in the relationship between the visual field and psychic and social conscience. This challenge continues because the social production of both suffering bodies and technologies that capture suffering persists. Not to mention the overwhelming means of distribution that challenges our ability to ethically situate ourselves in relationship to human pain. If the intensity of the distractions accompanying museum-installed artworks has increased since Sontag was writing, then the critical response to such noise must insist on a focused, meditative, encounter with images of mourning.

The focus of each gesture in DeFreitas’s Vocabulary is structural because her body unifies the work. The repeated figure is sculptural, and yet corporeal as well, made of flesh. She does not attempt to appropriate signs that denote the context in her source images, rather she offers a sober, dedicated, and empathetic performance where she assumes the mourner’s position. This act momentarily suspends the source imagery, removes the immediacy of mourning and allows the viewer to address grief on a more formal level. There are neither costumes nor sets here, only a dark grey background frames her figure. The value range is broad, allowing for a perception of depth. The chromatic range is narrow yet still gives the viewer a sense of her skin tone.

Erika DeFreitas A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning (no. 11) (2013)

Erika DeFreitas A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning (no. 11) (2013). Inkjet digital print, 30 x 46 cm. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth. Courtesy of the artist.

To be sure, unity, here, is not indicative of totality. She does not aim to create a totalizing and universalized representation of her subjects in the throes of grief. Research informs the sequencing of the images and when installed as a group, individual poses are arranged by gestural similarities and suggest a subtle and reserved modicum of animation. The sequences also reveal slight shifts in the poses. The genre of the artist self-portrait is both the unifying strategy and also a way to protect the identities of the various and varied mourners. These figures delicately stage the very edge of what can be made visible or represented, indeed the very edge of what a person can take before they give in and break. Hands over mouth. Hands over mouth and nose. Hands over all recognizable features. Hands clasped in a composition balancing positive and negative space, allowing us to see her resistance to opening her eyes. Hands in a possible form of prayer, supplication, or contrition. Hands holding a head hanging in desperation, with her palm, with her fist, with fingers bent at the side of the cheek. Holding down the lower lip and gazing sideways, then down towards the bottom of the image. Hands lifted in the air, perhaps towards the skies, in search of an unknowable answer or a God figure that appears neither to be seen nor even easily representable. Wrists as support for her hanging head as if wiping her brow. Hands toward the chest, landing slightly for three iterations. A body bending in pain, seventeen different ways: an archive.

Sontag’s challenge to image-makers—to create spaces of contemplation in spite of the potential banality of the gallery or museum—is further theorized and turned towards a possibility for critical engagement through the work of Judith Butler. For Butler, images shift as their context’s shift. This shift offers new ways of seeing and understanding that offer rigorous critical potential:

The frame that seeks to contain, convey, and determine what is seen (and sometimes, for a stretch, succeeds in doing precisely that) depends upon the conditions of reproducibility in order to succeed. And yet, this very reproducibility entails a constant breaking from context, a constant delimitation of new context, which means that the “frame” does not quite contain what it conveys, but breaks apart every time it seeks to give definitive organization to its content. In other words, the frame does not hold anything together in one place, but itself becomes a kind of perpetual breakage, subject to a temporal logic by which it moves from place to place. As the frame constantly breaks from its context, this self-breaking becomes part of the very definition. This leads us to a different way of understanding both the frame’s efficacy and its vulnerability to reversal, to subversion, even to critical instrumentalization. What is taken for granted in one instance becomes thematized critically or even incredulously in another.12

Butler theorizes the photographic archive of loss in terms of its circulation within social and political economies that aim to use images as tools to sway the public’s opinion for or against particular causes. Throughout the history of these images, depictions of suffering have been deployed as tools to manage public perceptions of violence. In the process of reframing these images, DeFreitas suspends, if only for a fleeting instance, the images’ politicized and often proselytizing original context. In performing the poses for the camera, the artist presents viewers with emotionally charged ready-mades. These ready-mades offer a new context because they break (and break with) the original context. This new context, handled with focus, care, and restraint, opens up the possibility of a more contemplative kind of viewing, one that mirrors the structural and emotional complexity of suffering.

The sources of A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning range widely, yet they are brought into the frame and held together in the relationship between the artist and her lens. The installation arranges the images into a kind of language, seemingly poetic in how they are rendered, with spaces and breaks between the performance photographs. Sometimes, these breaks between the images coincide and complement one another. Sometimes the blankness of the wall at the edges of the photographs suggests a hole in the heart of the work. The individual poses exist in a syntactical relationship, arranged in a way that suggests movement, yet singular in the subtlety of each of their contours. In the transition in context from image to performance action, and then back again to the image through the photographic process, DeFreitas’s work becomes a vocabulary that enters the archive.


In her introduction to the meticulously-compiled anthology Lost in the Archives, philosopher Rebecca Comay inquires compellingly and, at once, immediately notes, “What isn’t an archive these days?…In these memory-obsessed times–haunted by the demands of history, overwhelmed by the dizzying possibilities of new technologies–the archive presents itself as the ultimate horizon of experience.”13 Accordingly, it is as though the space of the archive serves as a structurally-charged metonymic domain that signals the unending demands for memory’s restitution. This is a restitution that is often hard-fought, asking after what the very culturally proper injunction “to remember” might actually mean or refer to. Taken still further, the archive might serve as a metaphor for the affective containment of state- sanctioned dominant histories and the subsequent resistances to and forced overflows from such containment by those of us who anxiously represent or even dare to speak on behalf of minor and/or marginal histories. Furthermore, the archive could be seen as a historical materialist’s attempt at making sense of memory’s tacit yet always tentative capacity for giving way to mourning, making out of memory’s very opacity, out of its unsubstantiated and irreducible nature, the possibility for the otherwise impossible task of mourning. This list of what the archive represents is inexhaustible, and, as such, it may represent, as already suggested, the very kernel of human experience itself (here, one might refer back, double back even, to the Freudian navel of the dream14—the always already fading dream that is the archive itself).

Such a conception of the archive represents the very conditions of human life that make memory and mourning both possible and yet simultaneously repressed, delimited, and antagonized, or even antagonistic. However we understand or reckon with the archive, it “sanctions” experience itself, while simultaneously attempting to dissolve or disavow it. Both mourning and melancholia reside there; these affective registers can be found, dust-laden, suffocating, and wanting of air, in the archive’s most intimate nooks and crannies. In the context of what it means to experience the vagaries and vicissitudes of loss, the archive tells the story of an uncanny simultaneity—letting go while also anxiously attempting to hold on. Perhaps, it is precisely this complicated and self-contradicting uncanniness—of what the archive can and cannot hold, what it refuses to hold—that DeFreitas was considering when she remarked “[our] hands tell on us”15 in an interview with curator Crystal Mowry. The series discussed here rehearses a Baudelairean feat of archaeology. Walter Benjamin describes Charles Baudelaire’s exacting poetic method as such:

‘Here we have a man whose job it is to gather the day’s refuse in the capital. Everything that the big city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything it has scorned, everything it has crushed underfoot, he catalogues and collects. He collated the annals of intemperance, the capharnaum of waste. He sorts things out and selects judiciously: he collects like a miser guarding a treasure, refuse which will assume the shape of useful or gratifying objects between the jaws of the goddess of Industry.’ This description is one extended metaphor for the poetic method, as Baudelaire practiced it. Ragpicker and poet: both are concerned with refuse.16

DeFreitas’s approach comes close to this description because her series has a poetic and quiet nuance to it that is cumulative and accumulative. She collects, collates, accumulates, and catalogues images of grieving—images invested in representing the experience of profound loss. An immediate reference point for such images might be the photographs and videos that came out of North Korea in 2011, that show North Koreans weeping at the news of their then-leader Kim Jong-il’s death. Images like these endeavor to do different kinds of work depending on the context of their release or discovery. In North Korea, they may serve as a state-sanctioned archive of patriotic affect that show citizens experiencing intense emotional disarray. In other contexts, such as in the global North/West, these images may perhaps be read as state-sanctioned propaganda and their validity may be questioned. In anti-communist spaces, for instance, viewers may question the images’ authenticity or posit that they’ve been staged to show the world at large the state’s unwavering commitment to their leader. Irrespective of their validity or their authenticity, the private emotional expressions of individual citizens become part of a display of an archive rendered as public because they come to testify for how the state imagines itself.

The work of collecting and accumulating such images from a variety of print and online sources feels archaeological precisely because in our hyper-mediated and fast-paced lives, emotions feel like refuse, the excess material relegated to the margins of quotidian life. By assiduously picking at this psychical refuse, by creating a visual repository of the emotional lives of grievers as they are presented and re-presented, DeFreitas appears to be producing, what Ann Cvetkovich calls an “archive of feelings.”17 What makes this archeologically-driven endeavor even more complicated is the way DeFreitas positions herself as the griever. In taking portraits of herself restaging, reproducing, and re-enacting the affective facial contortions and bodily comportments of the grievers, honing in on their expressions and hand gestures, DeFreitas appears to be literalizing the grief by imposing the gestures onto and upon herself and internalizing, to a certain extent, their affective registers. This is not a case of simply appropriating these affects and making them her own. Rather, DeFreitas, as artist and both subject and object of this series reimagines re-enactment as an ethical act that serves the memory of those who grieve and the people they resolutely grieve for.


We are in an era of either unbridled oversharing or of cautioned under sharing. Further to this, we are not always aware of what our sharing—either individually or collectively— signifies. Too much sharing can feel suffocating, claustrophobia-inducing, overwhelming, we can feel crowded or cornered, both demanded and imposed upon, by one another’s anxious affective production. On the other hand, too little sharing of our affective and emotional states can come off as though we subscribe to the cult of a particular kind of calculated distance or coldness, a stoicism that might leave us appearing disaffected or unaffected, removed, unmoved or even, worse yet, recalcitrant. Mediation, or rather hyper- mediation as the case maybe, can be deceptive—it showcases the semblance of affect without the necessary psychical working through, on our parts, of that affect. It is as though the demands of memory are overshadowed, clouded over, by the demands of the sharing economy in the midst of which we find ourselves.

Take, for instance, the moment a famous person—a beloved celebrity, a popular activist, a renowned artist, a much-admired politician (though these are few and far between), or even a rock star academic—dies, the dam of affect starts to give in and come undone. David Bowie and Prince passed away in 2016, and within moments of the news of their deaths social media platforms appeared to come unhinged as a result of what felt like an orgy of seemingly ecstatic sharing; sharing as a way to participate in grieving, or sharing as a form of work, perhaps the work of mourning. Fans on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram shared and filled their newsfeeds with images, photographs, videos, and songs of the now-deceased musicians. As each were declared dead, social mediation came to life in a rigorous and viral manner. The plethora of what was being shared rose over the hours immediately following each of their passing—think pieces, obituaries, memes, commemorative pieces, anti- and counter-commemorative pieces, celebratory treatises, critical opinion essays, all forms and genres of material got shared and this sharing continued for days, for weeks, and, in the case of some sharers, for months after.

A more extreme and, to some extent, paradoxical manifestation of this culture of sharing as a signifier of grieving and mourning is when those of us who do share are not even fully aware of what it is that we are sharing anymore. The scenario that immediately comes to mind is the case of sharing material online where the sharer, having not even read the article being shared by them, shares it for the sake of sharing alone, almost as though participating in the sharing economy was an uncanny and conditioned stimulus response—for instance, the act of sharing an obituary of someone today, as though they had died today, when in fact they had died a year or few ago. One can argue that people share on social media for all sorts of different reasons—to commemorate, to celebrate, to remember, to memorialize, to remind or to make a note to oneself to read the shared article at a later point in time, and so on and so forth. All of these reasons seem to validate sharing culture and the sharing economy, both of which promise the semblance of free and open access and the democratization of information and knowledge. Such sharing makes grieving collective and public and removes the experience from the private sphere. Grieving or mourning are no longer held in secret; suffering is no longer expected to be done in silence, exiled to a place of intimate psychical and emotional privacy. Rather grieving and mourning become simultaneously public property and public commodity, to be shared and disseminated, to be exposed and molded as we or others wish or see fit. The question remains, however, as to what “exactly,” if anything, might be “worked out,” emotionally and psychically, in the process of such a public revealing of our respective grieving processes. What does such an exposure of our mourning processes do in the space of an unbridled economy of sharing and how might DeFreitas’s images offer a counterpoint to considering the work of mourning otherwise as possibly always already mired by an impossibility?

To understand the psychical valences at work in a culture intensely committed to sharing, the work of psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas seems to offer some clarity. When considering the unbridled impulse to share information, according to Bollas, “it is as if contemporary selves live several steps removed from engagement in the real—retreating from the unmediated due to anxieties about life outside its gated communities—seeking ironic sanctuary in the technology of mediation … the new role of the self [is] as a transmitter of information, via Twitter or Facebook … iPhones and other such technical devices are transmissive objects, prosthetic parts of the contemporary self.”18 What is being shared, it would appear, feels as though it is being shared for the sake of sharing, as though sharing has become the very measure of a sense of the good as it prevails in the public sphere. Sharing in mourning and the sharing of mourning assumes a democracy of affects bolstered by the presumption that all affects exist and circulate paradigmatically along similar lines or on equal footing. This marks the difference, for Bollas, between what might be understood as horizontalism which is a horizontal form of thinking about, and engaging with, information and knowledge, as opposed to more vertical forms of thinking and thought. To quote extensively from Bollas, such horizontalism:

does not recognize any hierarchical order. All things are equal and no one thing is intrinsically more important than another. The Fastnet and transmissive selves do not necessarily register the weight of meaning of any object of communication. We may see this on cable news for example, where a series of fires in the Western part of the United States, or an impending hurricane, will be given the same air time as a revolution in the Ukraine or a genocide in Africa. The recognized value of the opinions of highly experienced journalists, scholars and writers now fades out as the social democracy of the internet turns everyone into an expert on any topic. While this democratization is hugely beneficial in many respects, the down side is the inadvertent promotion of the power of the uninformed self.

When vertical thinking is destroyed and horizontal thought prevails then difference between one topic or another becomes meaningless. Indeed, differentiation is predicated on the ability to evaluate and to discriminate between objects, to find in alterity a tensional creativity as difference generates oppositions that will be valued if heterogeneity is assumed to be of value. So, to … horizontalism we add homogenization: the need to eradicate difference and fashion a world of common beings. The promotion of homogeneity aims at the reduction of difference, the lessening of tensions, and the presumed increase in the productive potential of the human being.19

Expressions and representations of mourning cannot be assumed to hold similar values. That being said, this doesn’t suggest a competitive measuring of pain and grief. Rather, a vertical approach allows for the informed particularity and the historical specificity of each expression of grief to be articulated in a manner that honors them. DeFreitas’s A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning cuts through the horizontalism of the contemporary archives of grief and mourning that are produced and reproduced in the space of the online sharing economy. Each of the images signify differences that otherwise could be forgotten. Each gesture is a re-enactment of a grief that is simultaneously universal and singularly unique. Equivalences cannot be made between each physical representation of grief that DeFreitas captures in her series. Such equivalences belie and betray the variegated ways in which grief is experienced, represented, enacted, and/or re-enacted. We are not suggesting these images create a hierarchy because the uniqueness of each re-enactment cannot be denied.

Erika DeFreitas A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning (no. 27) (2013)

Erika DeFreitas A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning (no. 27) (2013). Inkjet digital print, 30 x 45 cm. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth. Courtesy of the artist.

As suggested earlier, re-enactment is not simply an act of appropriation. Rather, re-enactment and the resulting photographs provide an opportunity for the artist to visit and revisit each image. The singularity of DeFreitas’s images is attuned to a sculptural sensibility that takes into consideration the nuances which inform the body in various expressive states of grieving. Grief, or grievability even, is rendered as performatively sculptural and simultaneously capable of existing in the realm of portraiture and, specifically, that of self-portraiture. Each image appears to take seriously the visual intricacies at play when a person grieves. To re-iterate, our hands do, indeed, tell on us—they convey an elaborate and unconsciously-driven orthography of a visual language that concerns the myriad complexities regarding how a mourning subject appears in the visual field and both to and in the world writ large, and how such a subject may be represented. Furthermore, each image also signals the impossibility of representation as such, which, in the end or in the final analysis, is also the impossibility of the archive to archive fully—the impossibility to capture all affect and feeling that represents mourning. By encouraging us to focus on where a hand is placed, or on how a shoulder is crooked, or on how an arm juts out in a particular direction, or on where her eyes seem to be looking at any given moment—looking somewhere beyond what appears as the frame of the image itself—or on how a finger is curled in a specific yet possibly still unconscious and banal manner, DeFreitas also appears to be asking viewers to focus on body parts coming together to form a whole. Here, the sense of the perceivable whole is the sense of the subject—both herself and the figure whose initial visual representation inspired the re-enactment—in a state of perceivable grieving.

What are the ethical parameters of making an archive of mourning’s various registers? What are the ethico-political and historical implications and lines drawn by such re-enactments? What kinds of presences and absences exist in these gestures? And, what are the signifying limits of such gestures? DeFreitas’s images seem to delineate a distinction between remembrance and forgetting. In response to the heady yet “dizzying possibilities of new technologies”— technologies that are a part and parcel of the wearisome projects of late capitalism and neoliberalism—an aesthetic work such as A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning offers us different ways of considering how remembering and mourning may be archived. Moving away and beyond the tedium of being bombarded by a progression of seemingly vacuous gestures of sharing—a sharing that is as quickly forgotten as it is lost in the web of online algorithms—DeFreitas’s image constitutes the essence of the Barthesian-styled punctum. The gestural moment stands in for the memory of a mourning that is simultaneously too much and yet never enough. As DeFreitas suggested, “[our] hands tell on us”—they either tell too little or too much. Their stories aren’t easily contained. DeFreitas, thus, instantiates a rigorous conversation vis-à-vis her self-portraits about the impossibility of representation while emphasizing that with each such re-presentation the archive is made all the more expansive.


Images can be dangerous if they become icons because they can be presumed to substitute for experience itself, be it the experience of a traumatic event, a sense of the real, or a prized love object now irrevocably lost. When these images become icons, they also become fetish objects that claim to prolong the sense of loss. The unsayable, the non-representable, the very sense of trauma which no language can fully capture, becomes reduced to a figurative stand-in. Representation in the form of the icon halts any sustained or nuanced discussion. The icon, thus, represents only a part of the memory it claims to remember, a very superficial part based on appearances, and therefore becomes a part of the problem itself of remem- bering and forgetting. In reality, the icon signals incompletion when it assumes the wholeness of memory.

Consider the case of the photograph by the artist Ai Weiwei re-enacting the now-famous scene from a series of photographs taken in 2015 that showed the lifeless body of a young Syrian boy, a refugee named Alan Kurdy. The original photographs were taken by Turkish journalist Nilufer Demir as she was covering the Syrian migrant crisis. She discovered Kurdy’s body on the shores of a beach near the Turkish town of Bodrum. Of all the images Demir captured, we focus on three. The imaged she initially tweeted which received the most attention on a global scale, the image of Kurdy’s body photographed from the side as an aid worker approaches, and finally the image of Kurdy’s lifeless body carried in the arms of an aid worker. All these images had significant traction within the sharing economy of social media. All these images have also claimed to have raised international awareness of the migrant crisis. When Demir initially tweeted the image of Kurdy’s body, she used the hashtag KiyayaVuranlnsalik, which translates to English as “humanity washed ashore.”

Ai Weiwei’s re-enactment was staged on the Greek island of Lesbos, where the artist has a studio. Unlike the source images by Demir which were rendered in colour, Ai’s images, taken by Indian photojournalist Rohit Chawla, are black and white. Ai mimics Kurdy’s body in Demir’s photograph, the one taken from the side facing the photographer’s camera. The choice of how to represent the re-enactment feels like an aesthetic one and is rhetorical in nature. The image is supposed to be beautiful. The effect is supposed to be haunting. The photograph issues a message—or, rather, it is supposed to. That tragic message is one about the plight of those fleeing the Syrian Civil War, about the refugee’s perilous journey, and about the fate of those who don’t survive the dangerous trek. On this last point, both Demir’s original photographs and Ai’s re-enactment are expected to do something similar—stand- in as iconic representational signifiers for the tragedy of what has become the Syrian war and the resulting refugee crisis. The image of Ai’s re-enactment was shared—on both social and mainstream forms of media—reaching many corners of the world and became, as is expected of such spectacles, an emblematic and symbolic metonym for the violence of the war and the crisis it had produced. Even where the re-enactment was criticized as a crude misstep, its critics acknowledged that it was “an accomplished piece of viral imagery—a very specific kind of viral imagery, too: the kind that piggybacks on another viral image with slight variation and without adding anything. It is a meme. And like all memes, it got attention.”20 Much of the affective, psychical, and emotional response to the crisis, at a global scale, is localized into such pictographic and imagistic part objects, fetish objects at that, that are these photographs.

Erika DeFreitas A Visual Vocabulary for Hands in Mourning (no. 27) (2013). Inkjet digital print, 30 x 46 cm. Photo by Daniel Ehrenworth. Courtesy of the artist.

The oft-heard and well-rehearsed liberal argument suggests that there is nothing inherently “wrong” with forming affectively-charged cultural investments in the power of iconography, as such. Why not use iconic images to trigger sympathy, empathy or raise awareness about a socio-political crisis? Why not have a world-famous artist of Ai Weiwei’s statute re-enact the death scene to build momentum and thus provide adequate responses to the crisis? Why not signify tragedy through a single signifier, produced and reproduced, shared and re-shared, as a way to give that tragic scene a kind of representative meaning? The problem, however, as suggested earlier following Bollas, is a heavy reliance on horizontalism or a horizontal way of thinking to represent or mediate tragedy. False equivalences lead to false forms of prevarication. Put simply, the images of Kurdy’s lifeless body washed ashore are not the same as the image of Ai’s re-enactment. The image of the body of a refugee child fleeing war is not the same as the image of a re-enactment staged by a world famous artist on the shores of an island where he has a studio. The ethical optics are awkward, even if somewhat unscrupulous, when we consider the econo-politics that enabled Ai to set up shop on a Greek island that has itself been a victim of the global economic crisis and the harsh measures implemented under the heading of austerity. The danger of iconography is that it reduces trauma’s representation to the centrality given to an image. Because of this, we might want to consider DeFreitas’s work as a possible critique of the valorization and unchecked celebration of the image. We might want to consider DeFreitas as an iconoclast and, as such, we turn to Comay’s thoughts on the gesture:

There is a wild iconoclasm that smashes statues, gouges out eyes, and uses the debris to build new, better, bigger monuments. There is a gentler iconoclasm that sees beauty in the rubble, and finds in the spectacle of dereliction the consoling reassurance that life carries on. There is a more muted kind of iconoclasm that embalms and catalogues the pieces. In the museum, the things can be divested of their magic and put out of circulation while still being appreciated as fine art. A yet more furtive iconoclasm breaks the spell of this enjoyment by turning this pleasure to subtle profit.21

What stands out about DeFreitas’s Visual Vocabulary is its capacity to turn the idea of the image as icon on its proverbial head. Her work shows the distinction between an image impossibly gesturing toward memory (and failing to do so) and an image as iconic monument to the aforementioned “thing” itself. The iconic is missing from DeFreitas’s photographs. It is replaced instead by absence, a void or a negative space that cannot be filled in, that, perhaps even, actively resists being filled in or made whole. There is also a perceivable difference with regards to the question of emplacement. Ai’s re-enactment finds him taking up the body, figure, and ground of the lost subject, Kurdy, who has been turned into an object. Unlike DeFreitas who takes on the position of the mourner whose grief cannot be appropriated, Ai literalizes mourning by becoming the mourned-for object, by appropriating the object of grieving itself. DeFreitas’s images reveal memory’s failure to (re)place or locate what is lost. What is emplaced in the shadowy contours of the negative space is the very failure to fully grasp, or hold on to, the lost subject.

Commemoration becomes all the more a real effort here, because DeFreitas’s images cannot easily be turned into icons; rather, they are images that ask their audience to struggle (and struggle hard, at that) to hold onto to what cannot be fully grasped about a traumatic event or loss. To echo Comay again, “[the] event is, by this strategy, at once acknowledged and disavowed. Its pressure is both registered and elided by being either consigned to the depths of the immemorial or pushed off to a future forever pending.”22 Memory lives (and dies, as well) in that liminal space between the immemorial past and the future-to-come, the slippery notion of the l’avenir, but not quite in the time of the present either; rather, it anxiously “lives” in what cannot be seen.

Our memory and our mourning seem to always be incommensurable with what we have intangibly lost. The word “strategy” seems to ring true in what DeFreitas attempts to do—a sort of strategic memorialization which distinguishes itself from Ai’s method. DeFreitas’s aesthetic strategy is informed by an impossibility at the very heart of the work of remembering and, in turn, mourning the dead. Strategic memorialization is here, perhaps, not quite unlike Spivak’s original intent behind the formulation of her own concept of strategic essentialism. If strategic essentialism allows those on the margins to ethically conceive of their shared presence and subjectivity in history differently or otherwise outside the normative ways by which history is told, then strategic forms of memorialization might take into consideration how the dead can be remembered on shared rather than easily appropriated terms. To invoke Spivak again as she asked “can the subaltern speak?,” perhaps we are asking, “can the dead speak?” Here, to be sure, it is not that the subaltern and the dead are mutually exclusive categories; it is that both exist on the very margins of historical recognizability, often excluded from memory and forms of commemoration, often given over to the recesses of forgetting. The dead speak, perhaps, in the silences of the negative spaces carved out by DeFreitas in her tenderly rendered re-enactments. In how the artist chooses to mediate them, the question that remains to be answered is, can we hear them?


  1. DeFreitas offered this remark in an interview with Mowry, “Rest/Repeat: An Interview with Erika DeFreitas,” for a special issue of the journal No More Potlucks (issue 45, Repetition, edited by Michèle Pearson Clarke) published in 2016 ( http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/rest-repeat-an-interview-with-erika-defreitas-crystal-mowry/ )
  2. Josh Costine, “How Instagram’s Algorithm Works,” TechCrunch, June 1, 2018, https://techcrunch.com/2018/06/01/how-instagram-feed-works/.
  3. David Hershkovits, “How Kim Kardashian Broke the Internet With Her Butt,” The Guardian, December 17, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/dec/17/kim-kardashian-butt-break-the-internet-paper-magazine.
  4. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 1.
  5. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Macmillan, 2003), 51.
  6. Ibid., 51.
  7. Ibid., 51.
  8. Ibid., 2.
  9. Yasmeen Abutaleb, “Instagram Just Hit the 500 Million User Mark,” Money.com, June 21, 2016, http://money.com/money/4376329/instagram-users/10
  10. Allie Burke, “Instagram is the Happiest Place in the (Internet) World,” Psychology Today, January 24, 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/paper-souls/201601/instagram-is-the-happiest-place-in-the-internet-world
  11. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York, NY: Picador, 2003), 119.
  12. Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London + New York: Verso, 2009), 10.
  13. Rebecca Comay, “Introduction,” Lost in the Archives, ed. Rebecca Comay (Toronto: Alphabet City Media, Inc., 2002), 12.
  14. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud wrote, “There is often a passage in even the most thoroughly interpreted dream which has to be left obscure; this is because we become aware during the work of interpretation that at that point there is a tangle of dream-thoughts which cannot be unraveled, and which moreover adds nothing to our knowledge of the content of the dream. This is the dream’s navel, the spot where it reaches down into the unknown” (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud IV, p. 525). I analogize the archive to the notion of a dream precisely because of the implicit impossibility inscribed into its very structure that it cannot contain everything, that it always has knowledge or information left out of it, existing on its margins or exterior to it, while, at the same time, what might be within it may be found in a manner “entangled,” a state of disarray, disorder, or incompletion. The archive always already signals what it cannot contain or refuses to contain—its outside and its remainders, a sense of the unknown or unknowable.
  15. Mowry, “Rest/Repeat: An Interview with Erika DeFreitas,” for a special issue of the journal No More Potlucks (issue 45, Repetition, edited by Michèle Pearson Clarke) published in 2016 ( http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/rest-repeat-an-interview-with-erika-defreitas-crystal-mowry/ )
  16. Walter Benjamin, “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings (Vol. 4), eds. Howard Eiland & Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006, original work published 1938), 48.
  17. Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
  18. Christopher Bollas, “Psychoanalysis in the Age of Bewilderment: On the Return of the Oppressed,” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis (2015), 541.
  19. Ibid., 544.
  20. Toby Fehily, “There are Better Ways for Ai Weiwei to Take a Political Stand than Posing as a Drowned Infant https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/feb/06/there-are-better-ways-for-ai-weiwei-to-take-a-political-stand-than-posing-as-a-drowned-infant
  21. Rebecca Comay, “Defaced Statutes: Idealism and Iconoclasm in Hegel’s Aesthetics,” OCTOBER 149 (2014), 123.
  22. Rebecca Comay, Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011) 25.
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