Reappearing the Disappeared

Overpass Light Brigade invited artist and activist Brian Carlson to tell us about his project to repatriate the memory of Argentina’s “Los Desaparecidos” through his skillful portrait painting. What follows is his account of this stunning project that merges memory, archive and social justice…

Portraits of the Disappeared displayed in Argentina

Since the seventies, US administrations have supported the overthrow of democratically elected governments, have assisted, at times, with the installation of dictators, and have aided these repressive regimes as the dictators or juntas conducted institutionalized terrorism against their own citizens. The history is sordid and sustained to the present day. Support for repressors has been consistent on both sides of the short political fence, Republican and Democrat alike, and this history is well documented in declassified state department files that are readily available.

In 2007 I was invited to participate in a large international human rights art exhibition and convention held in Buenos Aires. The work selected was a large interactive installation called “Handwriting on the Wall” which was a fourteen foot long by ten foot tall free standing monolith, covered with blackboard paint, constructed in a sala of the Centro de Artes de Recoleta. On one side of the wall, statistics I had collected for years on world-wide violence against women were transcribed by the visitors. On the other side of the wall, women only were invited to write testimonies of violence they had suffered or violence against women they had witnessed. The wall filled quickly and was over written, layered in stories as women took the opportunity to speak about physical abuse.

A portrait of Gertrudis Hlaczik de Poblete

In preparation for that trip to Argentina I researched violence against women in Argentina and was quickly buried in reports and articles about the years of state terrorism, often erroneously referred to as the “Dirty War.” A huge number of the 30,000 disappeared were females. I admit that prior to that time I had scant knowledge about the concerted ideological genocide during the seventies and eighties. News coverage in the States in all media was slight or slanted. Movies like “Missing,” created momentary stirs but in general, we in the USA had little idea what our government was doing.

While in Buenos Aires for the exhibition a group of artists and academics were invited to tour ESMA, an acronym that stands for the School of Naval Mechanics, the Armada, a college of war. During this time period, a large part of ESMA had been used as a detention and torture facility for “processing” victims. It is one of the 340 detention and torture facilities that were in operation across Argentina, infamous for its size, the scale of repression, and for the fact it is situated right in Buenos Aires in the middle of an otherwise normal looking area, nestled among high rises and businesses. Five thousand people had passed through this gate of hell and almost all had disappeared.  After weeks or months of torture they were drugged, driven to transport planes, shackled together and dropped into the vast nearby Rio de Plata, which leads to the ocean. These were the “Vuelos de Muerte,” the Flights of Death.

Touring ESMA, which was not open to the public at that time, had a profound effect on me. The historian explained what had happened in each space we visited, we stood in rooms in which the tortures occurred, rooms in which the perpetually hooded victims lay side by side on concrete floors in chains and in silence, rooms in which pregnant women, who had been regularly tortured, delivered infants that were given away to the families of perpetrators to be raised with the correct political views. The pain, despair, and horror that permeated the walls was palpable.

It was in ESMA that I decided I would make a memorial to the desaparecidos and that, somehow, I would one day return to Argentina to exhibit the results. I promised the disappeared that I would do so and that, if possible, I would exhibit this memorial at ESMA itself. That promise would change my life.

A portrait of Ricardo Omar Sapag Romero

I did not begin the physical memorial for five years. I was teaching, raising kids, and working on other projects but I did begin research on the state terrorism. I learned about Operation Condor, the concerted six nation campaign of repression authored by Chile’s Pinochet, and I learned about CIA assistance to Condor. I learned about the infamous School of the Americas, a US institution that would educate tens of thousands of Latin Americans in subversion, coercion and torture, including many who populated the death squads, ran the torture programs or even led these regimes. Henry Kissinger was instrumental in retaining US support through three administrations while Nixon, Ford, and Reagan all actively supported these perpetrators. The story is far to long to tell. The support did not die in the eighties, it moved on to other fields, other continents. The crops of war and terrorism are freely rotated.

In January of 2012, many aspects of my life aligned in such a way that I decided to begin this work and take it as far as it could go. I had no funding, I had only part time jobs teaching at a university and  working as a cook. I knew no one in Argentina and I did not speak Spanish. But the commitment was real and I had an idea for a form. I decided I would hand paint portraits of every desaparecido I could access through photographs. These would be tiled together when installed so that the faces could be seen in public. The design would allow the memorial to be configured in many ways, be sized eventually to fill large or small venues, be exhibited indoors or outside, be set up relatively easily without extensive equipment or supplies, and be easily transportable. Rather than a site specific large  location and large superstructure, “Aparecidos”, as I would come to call the memorial, is adaptable and mobile.

Online I found, an archive with hundreds of photos of desaparecidos, and I began to paint, starting with the first one, Juan Carlos Abachian. After I had painted about eighty portraits, I opened a Facebook page, summoned Google Translate and made an awkward but apparently intelligible explanation of what I was trying to do, inviting families or friends of the disappeared to send me photos of their lost ones, promising to return them images of the finished portraits they could print or use in anyway they liked. It took time to get an answer. Many would later tell me that they read my request and looked at the portraits and wondered what was a Yankee going to do with the images of their dear ones? Finally one woman sent me an image of her brother, Gustavo, who had been abducted and murdered. Her act of trust led to more and soon I regularly had images arriving in my email and on Facebook requesting inclusion in a growing memorial.

Five years after the first paintings on the floor of my studio that began with some Bristol board, acrylic paint, a laptop and a photo archive, there have been 21 exhibitions of “Aparecidos,” in Argentina, Uruguay, the USA and Spain. I have now painted more than 2000 portraits and continue. In 2013, I exhibited 450 portraits at ESMA, fulfilling my promise to the disappeared. Since that time, I have exhibited at many of the most notorious detention and torture centers, Olimpo, La Perla, El Infierno, D2, and as well at numerous museums, cultural centers, universities and even high schools. There has been media coverage in the Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, the Oslo Times and many major Latin American publications including Pagina 12, TeleSur and TELAM. I feel that this has brought visibility back to the families who lost so much. The public display of this deplorable history is significant for collective memory, for grappling with our insidious inhumanity and for the healing of those who survived the brutality of their own government.

I say all of this to make a simple point. Visual art has an enormous potential to convey critical messages to la gente. There are many kinds of art as we all know and many kinds of audiences. On one end of the spectrum, artists shoot for “contributing to the art conversation,” attempting to make some mark in a large national or international esthetic game. Success would be in the form of museum shows, exposure in the art press, placement in significant collections, gallery representation and monetary reward.  But after a modicum of early success in that direction I couldn’t help but wonder, “Who is benefitting by what I am doing? Who sees this? What use is it? What is its function?” I saw my early paintings on the walls of corporations or hanging in some wealthy person’s home, where they had become a type of furniture…. the furniture of success, signifiers of good taste. This was a hollow success for me, with the world in flames of conflict, aggression and violence.

I had to do something different, to address issues that I felt mattered. I encourage all artists to get to the core of what you care about. Who are you? How can you use your amazing abilities to help take action? Speak with your gift, your skills, your passion! Do not quit speaking. You WILL make a difference.

A little girl views a portrait of a lost grandparent

Aparacidos on Facebook