Politics and joy come together in an artist’s tribute to his murdered father

LAS VEGAS – On a deep black painted side wall at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, 10 large sheets of paper are lined up. Each panel features a modified black and white photograph juxtaposed with capitalized text, mimicking the font of an old typewriter. A few meters from the wall, three plinths house ephemeral display cases. The two elements make up the exhibition of artist Elena Brokaw Human resources exploitation: a family album.

For the project, Brokaw sifted through his father’s extensive archives to find significant remains of his life in Guatemala. He is credited throughout the gallery – Ramiro García, artist and activist. In 1980, when Brokaw was only four months old, he was assassinated by the Guatemalan armed forces, who viewed his work, his existence, as a threat.

The photographs along the wall center García’s life. Snapshots of him with his friends capture the things of everyday life, but are warm and lovingly composed. The first image shows a man and a woman in the middle of a kiss, but the male figure is replaced by a black silhouette, denoting its absence, while the concentric rings that mark a target on a shooting range overlap the face. Below the image there is a line of text that reads “PEOPLE BELOW THEIR ABILITY TO RESIST PAIN”. The quote is from Human resources exploitation training manual, a text compiled by the CIA, which trained the Guatemalan forces for decades.

Ramiro García and Elena Brokaw, “These are the times I live for” (March 2020)
Ramiro García and Elena Brokaw, “Class Photo” (March 2020)

The experience of walking along the gallery mirrors the sensation of flipping through the pages of the family album and, then, the pages of the torture guide. Each piece is built from the previous one. Image # 4 shows four people, their bodies cut in half vertically by Brokaw and misaligned; his legend alludes to isolation. Later, two men hold out a glass to clink glasses on each side of the text: “TORTURE… IS A COMPETITION BETWEEN THE SUBJECT AND HIS TORMENTOR.

With every detail, Brokaw compels viewers to contemplate the extent of dehumanization required to murder innocent civilians. Combined with the dry, clinical text of the training manual, the images are almost voyeuristic. Brokaw’s changes turn them into surveillance items, as does the intelligence Guatemalan forces had to gather to commit his father’s murder.

Detail of pedestal # 3 at Elena Brokaw Human resources exploitation: Family album at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, showing a photograph of García, crumpled by the hands of her eldest daughter (the artist’s sister) who carried this photo for months after her death

Brokaw’s work recalls the tangible remnants of American foreign interference and state-sanctioned violence in Guatemala – the pieces that remain, decades after American collective consciousness evolved. Details throughout the exhibition seek to keep García’s memory alive. In the center of the gallery, red carnations that symbolize a revolutionary movement in which García participated in the 1970s are locked in a display case, along with pieces of his works, his death certificate and newspaper clippings commemorating his life and his achievements.

The last photograph in the show shows a woman with a target superimposed on her face. The caption reads “THE INTELLIGENCE CYCLE… CAN BE REPRESENTED AS A CIRCLE BECAUSE IT HAS NO BEGINNING OR ENDING.” Brokaw invites the viewer to re-engage in the work, moving us upside down towards the first image.

Installation view of Elena Brokaw Human resources exploitation: Family album at the Marjorie Barrick Art Museum
Detail of pedestal # 1 in Human resources exploitation: Family album at the Marjorie Barrick Art Museum, showing a plaque given to García’s daughters in 1997 by the School of Communication at the University of San Carlos, commemorating her martyrdom during the conflicto armado; and a hand-drawn brochure designed by García to celebrate his sister-in-law’s graduation from the University of San Carlos

Human resources exploitation: a family album continues at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, University of Nevada, Las Vegas (4505 S. Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas, Nevada) until January 29, 2022.

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