Reappearing the Disappeared

The Art of Memory

Since 2012, Brian Carlson has painted about 1,400 portraits of the disappeared in Latin America. The U.S.-based artist was inspired to create his project "Aparecidos," or Appeared, after visiting Buenos Aires in 2007 while researching for an art exhibit on violence against women. During his investigations he stumbled upon the history of Argentina's era of state terror between 1976-1983, as well as Operation Condor.

One thing that struck Brian during his research was the realization of how complicit the U.S. was in supporting state terror in Argentina, and throughout the region through Operation Condor.

“In the U.S. there is no free press so we don’t grow up learning about these things,” he said.

This is Brian’s contribution to the work of all of the people on the ground in countries like Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, and Mexico, who carry these crimes with them with heavy hearts, most of them still unresolved, yet through courageous perseverance continue to demand truth and justice for their disappeared sons and daughters, husbands and wives. Brian says he is very honored to add what he can to their decades long heroic efforts for truth and justice.

Aparecidos represents a new and very dynamic type of memorial. It grows from one on one interactions between the artist and families and friends of the disappeared, who send Brian photos of their disappeared loved ones for him to paint.

His memorial has different manifestations. First, the actual paintings are compiled and exhibited. There will be an exhibit in Buenos Aires on May 29. Second, there is the Facebook page Aparecidos. By making the images available to everyone who can access a computer, these portraits are reproduced, made into posters, printed on t-shirts and used for many memorial purposes as well as for the pursuit of justice.  Brian says it is important to note that while the paintings of Aparecidos are created by him the artist, the memorial is also created by those who use it in so many ways to maintain memory, to educate and to pursue justice. It is a memorial that grows from the efforts of many many people.

Brian's art is also a tool for preserving historical memory. “Within two generations memory can be completely lost or denied,” he said. “If this type of violence is not to continue forever this historical memory has to be sustained.”

However, as important as it is to fight for memory in Latin America, it may be even more important in the United States, where many people aren't aware that our government often trained, funded, and aided and abetted crimes against humanity and genocide in Latin America. 

“I want these people to know the cost of their comfort to the rest of the planet. I think they should know," said Brian. "Our economy and the comforts and relative luxuries of life here, depend upon the exploitation of much of the planet. This deeply bothers me.”

Brian, who is an art professor in Wisconsin, uses his project as part of his teaching curriculum to his university students. Many of them are quite moved when learning about the stories behind the disappearances, from everything from the U.S. responsibility, to the fact that many of the portraits show young, ordinary students and faculty members, people who would be their peers.

“Art is a heightened form of communication.,” said Brian. “Art has the capacity to cut through statistics, which can be overwhelming and an abstraction, and get to our hearts.”

Brian is taking a group of 10 students to Argentina on Monday for two weeks to teach a course on Art of Memory.

Brian's long term dream is to evolve an organization of young artists from around the globe to participate in continuing this memorial and to evolve others in many countries. "In this way, many many thousands of portraits could grow into a huge garden of memory, the history would be disseminated broadly to the next generation, art students would learn that their art could be used for very positive purposes to help their countries and the people of the world, and this would be a contribution to an eventual world in which genocide is unthinkable and impossible," he said.