Botero on his art about Abu Ghraib torture

Botero, Abu GhraibFrom Associated Press in the USA:

Botero calls his art ‘anti-inhumanity’

By JULIANA BARBASSA , Associated Press Writer

Fernando Botero‘s trademark fleshy figures exchange their voluptuousness and humor for tense, muscled torsos and gritted teeth in an exhibit of the artist’s Abu Ghraib paintings on view at the University of California in Berkeley.

The Colombian painter is famous for his plump portrayals of everything and everyone from dictators to fruit.

But the photographs of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers, which became public in 2004, disturbed him in a way that could only be exorcised through work.

His anger over the treatment of Iraqi detainees at the notorious prison is obvious in the 43 paintings and drawings displayed.

“All my life, I did subjects that were rather pleasant,” Botero said at a news conference to mark Monday’s opening.

“But from the moment I started the first sketch, I felt rage. … I was thinking, ‘This is not right. This is not possible.’ ”

The paintings in somber ochre, gray and green are not straight reproductions of the now-famous photographs from Abu Ghraib, but they evoke the images of torture that became one of the most unnerving symbols of the war.

The monumental, often larger than life pieces show anonymous prisoners bound, beaten, forced into sexual postures, arranged in pyramids of bodies, threatened with snarling dogs.

Botero said one of the functions of art is to keep dialogue alive — to provoke thought after debate has died in living rooms and television sets.

In one painting, a single hand is raised up as if seeking help, a rope eating through the fleshy wrist.

Another has a blindfolded prisoner dressed in women’s underwear, arms bound to bars at each side as if in a crucifixion.

Black and white pencil drawings are highlighted with single splashes of red.

The prisoner’s pain is evident, but their dignity is preserved, unlike in the photographs taken by the soldiers at Abu Ghraib.

“Figurative painting has the ability to make visible what is invisible,” Botero said.

The exhibit is particularly poignant as the nation debates whether to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, or pull out, said Harley Shaiken, chair of the Center for Latin American Studies, which brought the exhibit to Berkeley.

“There’s an urgency to the art, and to the moment,” Shaiken said. “It compels us to examine the circumstances that led us here.”

And yet, these pictures almost didn’t find a place among public institutions in the United States.

The exhibit traveled around Europe, and a New York gallery showed a smaller selection for a month at the end of 2006.

But when Art Services International organized a Botero retrospective currently on tour, it offered the Abu Ghraib series to American museums and found no takers.

“American museums didn’t want this exhibition,” Botero said. “For what reason, artistic or political, I don’t know.”

Shaiken contacted Botero about two months ago and quickly pulled together private financing for the exhibit.

“Art has to be seen,” Botero said. “This is a testimony. It’s not anti-American, it’s anti-inhumanity.”

The exhibit will close on March 23.

Its destination after Berkeley is unclear, although informal conversations with other institutions seem to indicate the paintings might be shown elsewhere in the United States, said Shaiken.

Otherwise, the show will return to Europe.

The Center for Latin American Studies, University of California, Berkeley, on the web here.

The US soldier who exposed Abu Ghraib: here.

Colombian sculptress Doris Salcedo: here.

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7 thoughts on “Botero on his art about Abu Ghraib torture

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