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Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Past Reappeared

A Conversation with artist/activist Brian Carlson

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In the mid-‘70s, a grossly misnamed “Gentlemen's Coup” began another age of political upheaval in Argentina. With Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla heading a military junta, state-terrorism was waged against the regime's opposition. In less than a decade, tens of thousands of left-wing “subversives” were captured, or “Disappeared,” by complicit soldiers and police officers. The Disappeared were then hauled to secretive detention centers where they were interrogated and beaten and, in many cases, tortured and killed. Though the regime has been toppled for decades, the grief and dismay felt by Argentinians still resonates.

 

Brian Carlson, a human rights activist from Port Washington, has endeavored to paint a myriad of portraits in tribute to the “Disappeared.” Carlson will be returning to Argentina in August. His exhibit, “The Reappeared,” will be on display at a museum that once served as a detention-center in Buenos Aires.

 

Can you describe the process that goes into painting so many memorials of the Disappeared? How many have you created so far and how painstaking has it been? 

I have painted approximately 500 portraits in a year and a half. I work from photos, originally from online archives, but as word spread through the Internet I began to encourage direct requests. The first task is to make these old, black-and-white photos as clear as possible, so I work with them on Photoshop. I want it to be obvious that these images are from real photos of real people. My colors are vibrant and I am focused on trying to celebrate the life of an individual. I don't know how long any one painting takes. The difficult part is the often overwhelming sadness of painting hundreds of beautiful faces, day after day, well aware that they not only were killed, but that they spent the last weeks or days of their lives in horrific conditions.

 

Though the horror that lasted from 1977-1983 is commonly known to North Americans as "The Dirty War," Argentines are deeply upset by that choice of words. Please explain why.

The term suggests that what occurred in Argentina was a “war.” Wars have some legitimacy; there are two opposing forces. The despotic ruling junta wanted to erase the ideological opposition and their method was systematic state terrorism of the most extreme sort. This was not a war. It was genocide.

 

Artistically and humanely speaking, what is the significance of the name of your exhibit: "The Reappeared”?

My intention is to suggest that I am symbolically reappearing these individuals. Disappearance is a particularly heinous tactic. From the arrest onwards, the methods are to wipe out the individuality of the person. When I take the time to paint individual portraits, I am saying in effect, "Here was a living, breathing individual with a family and friends. You did not erase her. She will be remembered and people will learn of her over time.” So the message of “Aparecidos” is to encourage everyone to appear, to live fully, to stand for truth, to speak openly and to pursue justice.

 

Under the pretext of fighting Communism, the Reagan administration ignored and even enabled the atrocities that occurred in Argentina. As an American, how do you mediate outrage for what happened in the past with the hope for a more compassionate future?

Argentinians ask me about my awareness of US complicity in this reign of terror. Our State Department was regularly briefed on the murders in Argentina. The files are easy to access today. I am sickened by the history of exploitation and violence that the US has perpetrated on the southern continent. Education, as I see it, is the only hope for a more compassionate future. We need an understanding of our complete interdependence with the rest of the people in this human family. I have hope.

 

Brian Carlson's artwork can be found at http://www.aparecidopainting.com