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GSSC Seminar Series
31 October 2023


Minding Memories. On Memory Work through Arts-Based Practices of Mental Health and Human Rights Activism in Latin America

(Marileen La Haije, University of Cologne)




The Uruguayan psychologists Walter Phillipps-Treby and Leonora Silva stress the need to address our collective “desmemorias” (forgetfulness) and ignorance in relation to the human rights of people who are hospitalized in psychiatric institutions: “the other humans” (“Proyecto para una Maestría en Celdas”, 338). They observe that their psychology students were more moved when they saw old pictures of victims of the dictatorship in Uruguay (during the 1970s and 1980s), than when they came to know the present-day “cells” in the psychiatric hospital Vilardebó in Montevideo (282). The conditions of confinement of the Vilardebó in-patients today are similar to those of the political prisoners during the dictatorship (290), according to Silva and Phillipps-Treby –who was a political prisoner himself at the time. Due to persistent stigmas related to mental suffering, they argue, “the dark and silent death” in psychiatric institutions does not feature in public memory discourses, in contrast to those who died in political prisons (316).  

Countering this forgetfulness in society, artistic collectives in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay seek to visibilize people who experience mental suffering as subjects of memory through arts-based practices. In this presentation, I will share some reflections on the memory work carried out by these collectives. My reflections are informed by in-depth interviews I conducted with key actors in the field: artists, activists, healthcare workers, experienced experts, students and scholars engaged with mental health and human rights activism in the region. I use the term ‘arts-based practices’ in a broad sense, acknowledging the diverse nature of these interventions which include mural arts, literary and cinematographic co-productions, painting and drawing, photographic documentation, narrative games, textile creations, street theater, and so on. My central argument is that these arts-based practices invite us, Global South Studies scholars engaged with arts-based activism, to rethink the ways in which we conceptualize memory. Most importantly, they call for a critical reflection on who we consider to be subjects of memory, and who we tend to forget.


Marileen La Haije (Ph.D., University of Cologne) is a postdoctoral research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the Department of Romance Studies of the University of Cologne, Germany. Her research focuses on the intersections between art, mental health and human rights, with a particular focus on Latin American arts-based practices. Currently she studies diverse arts-based practices in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay (e.g., collaborative storytelling, mural arts, documentaries, interactive theater, textile workshops) that promote the human rights of people who experience mental suffering, both within and outside mental health care facilities. As part of this research, she is particularly interested in arts-based practices of storytelling that seek to promote the rights of children in situations of psychological vulnerability: to play, to express themselves freely, to participate in society, among other rights.