LAS VEGAS — On a side wall painted a rich black in the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 10 large sheets of paper hang in a row. Each panel features an altered black and white photograph juxtaposed with all-caps text, mimicking the font of an old typewriter. A few feet away from the wall, three pedestals hold cases of ephemera. The two elements compose artist Elena Brokaw’s exhibition Human Resource Exploitation: A Family Album.
For the project, Brokaw sifted through her father’s vast archive to find meaningful remains of his life in Guatemala. He is credited throughout the gallery — Ramiro García, artist and activist. In 1980, when Brokaw was a mere four months old, he was murdered by Guatemalan armed forces, which deemed his work, his existence, a threat.
The photographs along the wall center García’s life. Snapshots of him with his friends capture the stuff of everyday life, yet are warm and lovingly composed. The first image depicts a man and woman in the midst of a kiss, but the male figure is replaced by a black silhouette, denoting his absence, while the concentric rings that mark a target at a shooting range are superimposed on the face. Below the image, a line of text reads “PEOPLE UNDER ESTIMATE THEIR ABILITY TO WITHSTAND PAIN.” The quote comes from the Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, a text compiled by the CIA, which trained Guatemalan forces for decades.
The experience of walking the length of the gallery reflects the sensation of flipping through the pages of the family album and, then, the pages of the torture guide. Each piece builds from the last. Image #4 features four people, their bodies vertically bisected by Brokaw and misaligned; its caption alludes to isolation. Later, two men hold out a drink to toast on either side of the text: “TORTURE … IS A CONTEST BETWEEN THE SUBJECT AND HIS TORMENTOR.”
With every detail, Brokaw forces viewers to contemplate the magnitude of the dehumanization it takes to murder innocent civilians. Paired with the dry, clinical text of the training manual, the images are almost voyeuristic. Brokaw’s alterations transform them into articles of surveillance, much like the intelligence Guatemalan forces must have gathered to carry out her father’s murder.
Brokaw’s work serves as a reminder of the tangible remains of American foreign interference and state-sanctioned violence in Guatemala — the pieces left over, decades after the collective American conscience has moved on. Details throughout the exhibition seek to keep García’s memory alive. At the center of the gallery, red carnations that symbolize a revolutionary movement García was involved with in the 1970s are encased in a vitrine, along with pieces of his artwork, his death certificate, and clippings from various newspapers commemorating his life and achievements.
The last photograph in the show portrays a woman with a target superimposed over her face. The caption reads “THE INTELLIGENCE CYCLE … CAN BE REPRESENTED AS A CIRCLE BECAUSE IT HAS NO BEGINNING AND NO END.” Brokaw invites the viewer to engage with the work once more, moving us in reverse toward the first image.
Human Resource Exploitation: A Family Album continues at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, University of Nevada, Las Vegas (4505 S. Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas, Nevada) through January 29, 2022.
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