Botero’s Abu Ghraib art, reviewed by Erica Jong

This video from the USA says about itself:

Fernando Botero, artist in conversation with Robert Hass, Professor of English, UC Berkeley; Poet Laureate of the United States (1995-1997).

From the Washington Post in the USA:

“Botero Sees the World’s True Heavies at Abu Ghraib

By Erica Jong

Special to The Washington Post

Sunday, November 4, 2007; M01

When we think about the Colombian artist Fernando Botero, most of us visualize his roly-poly people flaunting their fat, their fashionable headgear, their cigarettes and cigarette holders, their excess. I never thought of these as political images until I saw Botero’s Abu Ghraib series in which hooded men dangle, upside down, and hideous dogs claw and growl at manacled prisoners arranged into pyramids and bleeding on each other. …

Fernando Botero, whose Abu Ghraib pictures will be on view at American University starting this week, read about the torturers of Abu Ghraib in the New Yorker, and made his own record of the horrors. He did not invent anything that was not described, but because he is an artist, we feel the terror of the tortured rather than the gloating of the torturers — so present in the photographs they took of themselves at play in the blood of others.

Botero calls art “a permanent accusation,” but his Abu Ghraib series seems to me more than an accusation. Rather, it constitutes a complete revision of whatever we have previously thought of Botero’s work. (He refuses to sell these works because he doesn’t want to profit from the pain of others. He plans to donate them to museums.) …

But American torture is different from other tortures because of the high opinion we have of our country and ourselves. Torture is something others do. We are above that. We are reasonable people governed by a great Enlightenment document we call The Constitution. We help, not hurt people all over the world. It is the incongruity of our image of ourselves versus the reality of our behavior that stings most.

Botero’s Abu Ghraib series has been shown before, but never in Washington. It is a moment: The people who got us into Abu Ghraib can contemplate what went on there.

I dare them to look at these images and be unmoved.

The series’s entry into the visual world has not been easy. In the Bay Area, they were shown not in a museum, but in a library at the University of California at Berkeley. Still 15,000 people saw them. …

We might also ask what power art can have in general. Did Goya stop cruelty in his time, or Picasso in his? No. But the role of the artist in raising our consciousness and bearing witness is essential. The artist makes us open our eyes to our own cruelty, our own passivity, our own indifference.

For that alone, his witnessing matters. …

[Novelist, poet and nonfiction writer Erica Jong wrote a catalogue essay for the Milan exhibition of Botero’s Abu Ghraib pictures and has a Botero sculpture of Eve with a snake and an apple in her apartment in New York. Her most recent book is “Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life.”]

(If you go: “Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib” opens Tuesday at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, at the intersection of Massachusetts and Nebraska avenues NW, Washington, D.C. Through Dec. 30. Open Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Free. 202-885-1300.)

WikiLeaks Posts More Prison Docs — This One from Iraq Prison [Camp Bucca]: here.

5 thoughts on “Botero’s Abu Ghraib art, reviewed by Erica Jong

  1. To play Abu Ghraib ogre, actress tried soldier’s life — in boot camp
    Liz Nicholls, The Edmonton Journal
    Published: Thursday, October 30


    Theatre: Theatre Network

    Written by: Judith Thompson

    Directed by: Marianne Copithorne

    Starring: Nadien Chu, Natascha Girgis, John Wright

    Where: The Roxy, 10708 124th St.

    Running: Today through Nov. 16

    Tickets: 780-453-2440

    – – –

    “I am America’s secret that got shouted out to the world. And they is not happy about that, not at all. And that is why they gonna make an example of me … .” “American female soldier” in Palace of the End by Judith Thompson

    EDMONTON – Nadien Chu, who plays the infamous Pte. Lynndie England in the production opening at Theatre Network tonight, has never done things the easy way.

    Going to theatre school as a single parent with two little kids? “Isn’t that crazy?”

    Chu laughs the kind of laugh that makes other people laugh, too. It has residual traces of astonishment.

    No, she wasn’t one of those “star-struck 18-year-old kids who yearn,” as she puts it, who’ve always known they belonged onstage, in bright light, and organized their whole lives to suit. The Yorkton, Sask., native who migrated to Edmonton to do an education degree didn’t even decide that her life was in theatre until she had her own little kids, now 14 and 11.

    “We all come to art in our own way,” she proposes modestly. “Having kids is a very creative act…. It became very clear to me; it awakened that in me, powerfully.”

    Needless to say, Chu was the only one of her classmates at the University of Alberta’s dauntingly intensive 24/7 four-year acting program who’d been married and divorced. And the only one who rushed home to “cook, clean and have an actual semblance of life … . I felt like a very different kind of student; I was chalking up huge debts. And debts of time — not just mine, but my children’s.

    “I’ve been out of school three years,” she says. “I was so tired. I think it took me two years just to recover.”

    Chu has to be owed a musical comedy with tap-dancing some time soon. She spent September immersed in civil war atrocities. The play was Matei Visniec’s Body of a Woman; Chu was an American shrink tending a Bosnian rape victim and traumatized by her own work on a mass-grave excavation team.

    Now, she’s “female American soldier” in Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End trilogy of monologues: the vilified and unapologetic white-trash Pte. Lynndie England, who took the rap, along with her boyfriend, for the shocking American abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

    When she landed the role, Chu was scared. “I had no idea!” she throws up her hands. “She was really outside anything I’ve ever understood, what it would be like to be in the army, to be a woman in the army … .”

    Thus began Chu’s secret life of Method acting research: She went to boot camp.

    Talk about shunning the easy way out. By night, she’d be in Body of a Woman. By 5:30 a.m. she’d be running with a tire chained to her waist, or shlepping a 100-pound steel pole, up stairs and hills. She was one of the newbies at Soldiers of Fitness, a hard-core boot camp run by a couple of ex-army sergeants for the torture/benefit of masochistic fitness freaks, as Chu describes it. And she’d be yelled at — “Stand up! Right marker! Left marker!” — or yelling army chants herself.

    “You don’t talk, you don’t look; your eyes are forward all the time … . People were falling down. Or throwing up; I threw up.” She smiles. “If one of us was five minutes late, we’d all be punished. If one of us couldn’t run any farther and dropped, we’d all pay. It’s not just you.”

    The “missions” they were assigned in groups required collaboration, especially from men, but on the proviso that the fallen not be rescued. “Chu! Chu! Chu!” she’d hear, at top volume. “Don’t ask questions! Just do!”

    “I’m pretty focused. But I have never despised something so much. It was such an effort to make myself go; it would make me physically ill to think about it.”

    What Chu was thinking about was a 17-year-old girl from West Virginia, one of the heirs to life’s loser card, scrabbling in poverty, with a minute range of life options. And she was thinking about the way that army assignments explicitly required male assistance for the women.

    Is Lynndie England a monster? A victim of American foreign policy, or the male military establishment? “When you think of her,” immortalized in a candid thumbs-up shot of triumph over a humiliated Iraqi prisoner on a dog leash, “your first reaction is, ‘How could you’?” says Chu. “But if you’re a mind that wants to be told what to do, if you’re not a questioner but a follower, and you’re in Iraq and doing it for your country … . If the prison is hell, and there’s been a riot, and everyone is freaked right out … . The dogs, the hooding, the sleep deprivation: things they were taught to do.

    “I was totally horrified at first,” Chu says. “Whoa! I wondered how (director) Marianne (Copithorne) thought I could do this … . But it’s more and more fascinating. And Marianne has been incredible, invaluable. She understands how to help an actor.”

    The audience will gasp at the horrors revealed by Thompson’s other two monologues: from the British weapons inspector (played by John Wright), who committed suicide after revealing a terrible secret, and from the Iraqi mother (Natascha Girgis), a Communist Party member who suffered unspeakably under Saddam Hussein. What will they think of Lynndie, though? “I really have no idea,” Chu says. “That’s what makes the writing so audacious.”

    In the end that’s why, with a couple of misgivings, she’ll let her 14-year-old see the show. “I can’t be afraid to be human,” she says, “for him to see why I’m doing what I’m doing.

    “I can’t imagine doing this at 18 or 20,” she says of theatre. “I didn’t have that courage, really. You have to believe something; you have to advocate for something … . I don’t have to imagine what it’s like to have a child; (life) gives you something to draw on. In the end, it’s gonna make you a better performer.”


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