The Art of Abu Ghraib


All photo credits: AP Photo/Francois Mori

Photo: Revista Diners








(The Independent)  The Art of Abu Ghraib.  By Elizabeth Nash.  April 13, 2005.

The horrors of Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison have been brought to shocking life by the brush of Colombia's best-known painter, Fernando Botero. His series of new works will go on show in Europe in June.

The artist, who is known worldwide for his paintings of voluptuous females and prosperous businessmen, says that anger drove him to portray the tortures inflicted by American soldiers upon Iraqi detainees in an Iraqi prison.  "This conduct by the Americans was a total shock for me," Botero told the Colombian magazine Diners in an interview. "I am increasingly sensitive to injustice, which makes my blood boil, and these paintings were born from the anger provoked by this horror."

The works, which are to be exhibited in Italy and then Germany, include two enormous triptychs showing life-sized images inspired by the photographs that horrified the world.  They show men blindfolded and dressed in women's underwear; men and women being beaten or harried by dogs, and bleeding bodies forced into humiliating postures.  One painting shows three naked, bound and hooded Iraqis stacked in a human pyramid, with blood pouring from their wounds. Many figures have the roly-poly chubbiness characteristic of Botero's work, while others look more like body-builders.

"As I'm an avid reader, I started to read everything I could about what happened, and I was shocked because Americans are supposed to be the model of compassion... The things that happened in the Iraqi cells were serious, very serious. And especially because they flouted completely the conditions imposed by the Geneva convention concerning the treatment of prisoners of war," Botero said. He added that the written descriptions of the abuses inspired him more than photographs.


He wants the series to be shown in the US, since "the matter concerns that country above all." The paintings will not be sold, but will remain part of his personal collection and loaned to museums which frequently invite him to exhibit, the artist said.  "I had no commercial intention in painting these works. I produced them purely to say something about the horror. And since all art is communication, it's more important that they are seen in museums and big public exhibitions than that they are hidden away in the house of a private collector."  His aim, he said, was to brand the images on the conscience of the world, in the way that Picasso's Guernica preserved forever the memory of how innocent civilians were bombed during the Spanish civil war.

(New York Times)  'Great Crime' at Abu Ghraib Enrages and Inspires an Artist.  By Juan Forero.  May 7, 2005.

Fernando Botero, Latin America's best-known living artist, shocked the art world last year when he broke sharply from his usual depictions of small town life to reveal new works that depicted Colombia's war in horrific detail.

Now, Mr. Botero, 73, who lives in Paris and New York, has taken on an even more explosive topic: the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Forty-eight paintings and sketches - of naked prisoners attacked by dogs, dangling from ropes, beaten by guards, in a mangled heap of bodies - will be exhibited in Rome at the Palazzo Venezia museum on June 16.

"These works are a result of the indignation that the violations in Iraq produced in me and the rest of the world," Mr. Botero said by telephone from his Paris studio.

"I began to do some very fluid drawings, and then I began to paint and the results are 50 works inspired by this great crime."

Mr. Botero said the paintings and sketches, done in oils, pencil and charcoal and part of a 170-piece traveling exhibition, would also be shown at the Würth Museum in Germany in October and at the Pinacoteca in Athens next year before returning to Germany. The exhibition was first made public last month, when Diners, a Colombian magazine, published photographs of the works.

Mr. Botero's work had, until recently, not been known for making political statements. Instead, for 50 years, his paintings had been associated with the placid, pastoral scenes of the small-town Colombia of his childhood, featuring ordinary people, aristocrats, military officers and nuns, all of them extravagantly corpulent.

But last year, his paintings of Colombia's long guerrilla war, full of blood, agony and senseless violence, became a big draw in European galleries, surprising followers astonished by Mr. Botero's bold departure in substance, if not style. Mr. Botero explained that he had decided he could not stay silent over a conflict he called absurd.

Now, he said, his indignation over war and brutality may turn up increasingly in his work.

"I rethought my idea of what to paint and that permitted me to do the war in Colombia, and now there's this," he said. "And if there's something else that compels me in the future, then I will do it."

Mr. Botero, citing the Impressionists and the many works of a favorite of his, Velásquez, said he had once thought that art should be inoffensive, since "it doesn't have the capacity to change anything."

But with time, and his growing outrage, Mr. Botero said he had become more cognizant that art could and should make a statement.

He pointed to the most famous antiwar painting of the 20th century, Picasso's masterpiece that depicted the German bombing of Guernica, Spain. Had Picasso not produced "Guernica," Mr. Botero said, the town would have been another footnote in the Spanish Civil War.

He said he read about Abu Ghraib in The New Yorker, then followed European news accounts. Calling himself an admirer of the United States - one of his sons lives in Miami - Mr. Botero said he became incensed because he expected better of the American government.

His new paintings and sketches - conceived not from photographs or specific acts of torture but rather from his reading of news reports - depict gruesome scenes of prison abuse. One inmate hangs from the ceiling, a rope around his ankle. Another work shows a soldier beating a prisoner with a baton, while yet another portrays a soldier urinating on an inmate. In many of the works, inmates simply scream in pain.

Mr. Botero said the works being exhibited, and those he has continued to create on Abu Ghraib, were not for sale because it would not be proper to profit from such events.

In Europe, where sentiment against the Iraq war is strong and Mr. Botero's work is well received, news of the paintings and sketches has already generated interest. In Germany, museums in Hanover and Baden Baden want to stage exhibitions exclusively of Mr. Botero's works on Abu Ghraib.

No exhibitions in the United States are planned, though Mr. Botero said he would like nothing more.

His previous works are on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and many others.

"If any museum wants to show works of torture, well, I would be delighted," Mr. Botero said. "The museum that decides to show it would have to be conscious that many people would be repulsed and be against it."

(Revista Diners

¿Por qué decidió pintar esta serie sobre lo sucedido en Abu Ghraib?
—Por la ira que sentí y que sintió el mundo entero por este crimen cometido por el país que se presenta como modelo de compasión, de justicia y de civilización.

¿Después de pintar el horror de la violencia colombiana contemporánea pensó que tenía algún compromiso de reflejar también este acontecimiento de violencia mundial?
—En el arte hay que revaluar siempre las ideas, poner todo en tela de juicio. Yo siempre creí y prediqué que el gran arte se hizo siempre sobre temas más bien amables, con muy pocas excepciones. Y es cierto. Por ejemplo, existen millares de obras hechas por los impresionistas, y aún no he visto una que represente un tema dramático. Sin embargo, situaciones tan hirientes como la violencia en Colombia y ahora la tortura en la prisión de Abu Ghraib lo hacen a uno pensar diferente.

¿En el momento de la gestación o creación de estas nuevas obras sintió que existía alguna similitud entre estos dos hechos de horror?
—No. La situación es distinta. La violencia en Colombia casi siempre es producto de la ignorancia, la falta de educación y la injusticia social. Lo de Abu Ghraib es un crimen cometido por la más grande Armada del mundo olvidando la Convención de Ginebra sobre el trato a los prisioneros.

¿Espera que esta serie, que seguramente será polémica, tenga efecto político en el mundo?
—No. El arte nunca tuvo ese poder. El artista deja un testimonio que adquiere importancia a lo largo del tiempo si la obra es artísticamente válida.

¿Cómo cree que la comunidad internacional, especialmente la norteamericana, va a recibir esta obra suya tan dramática sobre un hecho real y actual?
—Son obras nacidas de la ira ante tal horror. El cómo sean recibidas no fue una consideración en el momento en que las hacía.

¿Llama la atención la cantidad de obras que pintó sobre el tema. ¿Cómo fue el proceso de investigación y creación?
—Soy adicto a las noticias, a los periódicos y a las revistas. Además, a diario miro la internet y vivo informado. Han sido muchas las crónicas escritas sobre el tema, especialmente el magistral artículo aparecido en The New Yorker, el cual reveló la situación que se vivía en las cárceles controladas por los norteamericanos. A medida que me iba enterando sentía más la necesidad de decir algo sobre tal horror. El año pasado empecé a dibujar y a pintar, y son ya casi cincuenta obras las que he hecho sobre el tema.

¿Por cuál de esos dos géneros de obra que usted hace, cree que irá a ser más recordado en la historia del arte colombiano y universal?
—El tiempo y la historia son grandes palabras con las que no me quiero meter.

¿Es posible que en el futuro vuelva usted a pintar una serie específica sobre algún tema de la actualidad política?
—Es muy posible. Cada vez me siento más sensible a la injusticia que me hace hervir la sangre.

¿Aparte de la exposición en Roma en junio próximo, ¿qué destinación tendrán estos cuadros?
—Estas obras serán exhibidas próximamente en dos museos, en junio en Roma y en octubre en Alemania. No tengo la menor intención de venderlas. Las mostraré donde me inviten a exponer, ojalá en los Estados Unidos. No hay que olvidar que la gran mayoría de los norteamericanos condena la práctica de la tortura. La prensa de ese país ha denunciado permanentemente los hechos ocurridos en Abu Ghraib.

(Washington Post)  A Conflict of Images.  By Philip Kennicott.  October 14, 2006.

Back in 1993, on Park Avenue, there was a public exhibition of Fernando Botero's big, curvy bronze sculptures, monumental human and animal figures that sat fat and happy on the green median of one of the world's priciest streets. Botero's trademark chubbies aren't exactly beloved by the high art crowd -- at least that part of it committed to conceptual and abstract work. But they are a golden brand everywhere else in the world -- lucrative, popular, collectible. Even the name Botero is shorthand for one of his paintings or one of his trademark pudgy figures, and if someone whispers "Botero-esque" as you waddle by, you can be sure that it's time to start losing a few.

Park Avenue was the perfect place for them, a canyon of concrete where they seemed to mock (or celebrate) the porcine habits of the upper class. After New York, the Boteros went on to Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, Beverly Hills and (in 1996) Washington. But American museums haven't exactly been clamoring for first rights to his current show, which opens at the commercial Marlborough Gallery in New York on Tuesday.

Shocked and angered by news of Abu Ghraib, Botero was inspired to put his familiar figures through the rigors and humiliations of the abuse that American soldiers perpetrated on Iraqi inmates at the notorious prison. The result was some 80 paintings, drawings and watercolors that show his rounded figures with hoods on, shackled, bound at the wrists, forced into human piles, bleeding, screaming and vomiting. They are fat, but they're not happy.

It is a remarkable show, and a disturbing one. Few artists in this country have focused so obsessively on the events at Abu Ghraib, and even fewer have done it in a figurative, representational style. And no artist with a style so recognizable as Botero's has dared to infuse his cash-cow calling card with such nakedly political sentiment. You will probably never see then-Spec. Lynndie England practicing her sick sadomasochism in a Thomas Kinkade cottage or one of William Wegman's dogs trussed up for some waterboarding.

Botero, 74, a trim man with thin silver hair, says that he first learned of Abu Ghraib from Seymour Hirsch's explosive 2004 article in the New Yorker. Then came newspaper and television reports, and a barrage of photographs. He spent four or five months stewing over the outrage, and then, on an airplane returning to his home in Paris, he started sketching. About 45 of his Abu Ghraib works, which he has tried without success to exhibit in a U.S. museum, will go on display for the first time in this country at the New York gallery, one of his primary American outlets. It is a gallery more given to such artists as Dale Chihuly, the glass sculptor. Chihuly's exhibition of utterly vapid glass color blobs is moving out just as the Boteros move in (the Botero show runs through Nov. 18).

"We've never done an exhibition quite like this," says Janice Gardner Cecil, one of the Marlborough's directors. In the back of the gallery, behind the public space where hoi polloi wander, are large sliding racks of paintings for sale, and there one finds more familiar Botero material. Here, paintings such as "After Goya" (2005), which shows a blank-faced, full-figured, somewhat squat woman in an elegant dress and elaborate hat, are saturated in color, often tropical hues inspired by the artist's native Colombia.

By contrast, the Abu Ghraib paintings stick to a restricted palette. Flesh tones are sunburned or sickly green, and the backgrounds are dark military greens, ochre tiles and a black void seen through prison bars. Many of the works were done in charcoal or pencil, with a splash of rust color soaking through, to indicate blood. The rare bright spots in the paintings come from the paraphernalia of sadism: a blue latex glove worn by an American captor, strangely festive blindfolds, or bright-red women's underwear, used to demean and embarrass the men.

Look back through Botero's career, and these rare touches of color connect the Abu Ghraib art to the folk-inspired figures he has focused on for decades. A painting of a transvestite, from 2000, shows a hint of the same red brassiere seen in the Abu Ghraib works, and the lips of his torture victims are, for some reason, glossed up in cherry just like those of his female impersonator. And there's the head-scratcher: Is Botero just playing Abu Ghraib dress-up with his Botero People?

And isn't there something opportunistic, or at least insensitive, in that? Throughout the trauma of public exposure that made Abu Ghraib synonymous with American hypocrisy around the world, the government (and often newspapers) argued that it is humiliating to the victims to spread these images. Is it a further humiliation to Botero-ize them?

It isn't clear whether Botero sees his Boteros quite like we do, as slightly ridiculous figures, a particular species with all the grotesquerie but little of the visual sting of caricatures such as the decadent old men and prostitutes of George Grosz. He seems to see the world through the medium of his tubbies, and they are essentially neutral objects, which can be fit to multiple purposes, including his efforts, in this show, to document his feelings about torture.

"I didn't invent anything," he says, explaining that he painted directly from, and with fidelity to, descriptions he read in official reports about the outrages. (Botero insists that he didn't work from photographs.) "If I did, then all the rest of the paintings would lose their significance."

So he thinks of himself as a chronicler, albeit in paint, on canvas, with a glossy art sheen. This isn't the first time that his career has undergone what he calls "a parenthesis," a dark chapter devoted to disturbing political or social events. In the late 1990s, he painted a series of works inspired by the bloody drug-cartel wars of Colombia, a country he can only visit under extremely elaborate security arrangements because his fame makes him a target. Those paintings also hewed to the Botero style, including a corpulent Pablo Escobar, seen above the rooftops, a la Chagall, going down in a hail of bullets. He donated his drug-war paintings to museums in Bogota and Medellin, and he will donate the Abu Ghraib paintings as well.

"It is immoral to try to make money out of the suffering of people," he says. He hopes that an American museum will take them for its permanent collection; a European museum will also do.

These paintings leave you with the sense that two worlds have collided with very odd results. The men at Abu Ghraib may not have been skeletal, but they weren't pleasantly plump, a condition that suggests (in artistic terms) bourgeois prosperity or complacency. Indeed, being fat, in our image-conscious society, is almost the same as being guilty, and yet the guilt, at Abu Ghraib, rests squarely with the Americans -- who are never explicitly represented as such; no identifying flags or insignia appear in any of these works. The perpetrators are often faceless or are represented only by a hand or a boot coming in from the margin of the painting.

And although Botero spares no effort to show degradation -- even sodomy is explicitly represented -- he never quite gets facial anguish right. The fat on a happy Botero works to neutralize expression into something round and blank, like a baby's idiotic goo-goo face; but screaming, shrieking, crying Boteros have awkward, cartoon mouths with widely separated teeth, such as a child might draw. The strongest images are ones in which the subject has passed through anguish into resignation, which strongly suggests the visual tradition of Christian martyrdom.

Authentic primitivism, with its raw edges and volatility, has largely been banished from Botero's big, happy work, which often looks as if it's minted in a factory. In the Abu Ghraib works, however, Botero is more closely in communion with folk-art traditions. He mentions Goya, the chronicler of French atrocities in Spain, and there's a resemblance. But his Abu Ghraib series feels more like a catalogue of dark memories, a compendium of outrages captured in a long-established people's vernacular, as a hedge against obfuscation and oblivion. These illustrations form a kind of history book, not one written by the victors but one sketched and colored by the meek of the earth, hidden away until the tables are turned and the truth can come out.

"Art is a permanent accusation," he says.