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Anatomy of Torture

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Fernando Botero's'Fat People' Vent Anger Through Art

One day, Fernando Botero was reading an article about the accounts of abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the next day he was furiously painting. The neo-figurative Colombian artist, known for his exaggeratedly rotund figures in benign social settings, quickly used his signature style to paint an unflinching and controversial look at one of the lowest points of the U.S. occupation in Iraq.

After reading Seymour Hersh’s article in the New Yorker magazine, which broke the story on torture at Abu Ghraib prison, Botero said his anger and shock compelled him to express his emotions on the canvas—the results of which can now be seen at American University’s Katzen Arts Center.

Botero’s “Abu Ghraib” series of oil paintings and drawings is one of three shows that are part of the American University Museum’s “Art of CONFRONTation: AU Exploring Human Rights through Art” series. The Botero works, which occupy the museum’s entire third floor, are an in-your-face experience of the media-reported atrocities perpetrated on the Iraqi prisoners at the hands of U.S. guards. Viewers beware: With no attempts at subtlety or allusion, Botero painted the torture scenes as he envisioned them to happen, using Hersh’s article as his source material.

The display at the Katzen Arts Center is the first complete U.S. showing of the Paris-based artist’s 79 works in the Abu Ghraib series. A selection of the graphic images were initially presented in the United States at the Marlborough Gallery in New York City last fall, and some works also appeared at the University of California, Berkeley, in the spring.

At the Katzen exhibition opening, Botero described his frustration at finding no other U.S. galleries that were willing to show his Abu Ghraib series. But AU Museum Director and Curator Jack Rasmussen said that “American University’s long-standing commitment to international human rights makes us a natural host to display Botero’s work. Through his distinctive painting style, our students, faculty and especially the Washington community will be able to discuss human rights and war not through a political lens, but through art. Art cannot change the war but it can bear testimony.”

Born in Colombia, the 75-year-old Botero is no stranger to political themes in art, having created about 100 works based on the violence in his own country. The neo-figurative artist has described himself as “the most Colombian of Colombian artists” and is probably best known for his “fat people” paintings, in which human beings as well as animal figures are depicted in exaggerated proportions.

This “fat people” approach is also used in the Abu Ghraib paintings and drawings, but whether the corpulence of the prisoners has any real significance is unclear. Although some critics have viewed Botero’s style as an exercise in satire, Botero himself offers a different explanation, saying that an artist is often attracted to certain kinds of forms without knowing why, proceeding with such approaches intuitively.

But as opposed to his renowned 1989 painting “Familia,” a formal portrait of a plump, distorted husband and wife with their two children and dog, the prisoners in the Abu Ghraib series do not lend themselves to satirical interpretation—far from it. The pieces focus almost exclusively on prisoner figures rather than depictions of the guards. Botero did not offer a particular reason for this except to say that he only realized his emphasis on prisoners after the series had already been completed.

The series features close-ups of body parts such as bound hands and feet with trickling blood, as well as much fuller pictures, including triptychs of the same figure being tortured. Interestingly, the portrayal of blood oozing from the prisoners’ wounds looks similar to the way blood is shown in many paintings of the crucified Christ. There are also vivid paintings of men being forced into sexual positions with other prisoners. One, for instance, depicts a man on his knees with his head pulled back by a guard preparing him to perform fellatio on another bound prisoner. Several of the paintings have the large, burly, bearded prisoners in pink brassieres and panties. Blood drips from the anus of one prisoner who has been tied to cell bars.

Almost all of these prisoners are shown hooded or blindfolded. Attack dogs are prevalent throughout the works, including one portrait of a collared dog baring white fangs and crimson gums. The close-up of this vicious-looking animal trained to maim and even kill on command is especially chilling, but all of these works are disturbing, horrifying even, yet at the same time mesmerizing as well.

Botero said he was “surprised” that a North American artist had not produced any works based on the Abu Ghraib scandal. He said that for him, creating these 79 pieces has been a cathartic experience and that after the series was completed, he was able to let go of his anger. One can only be grateful that this extraordinary artist decided to share his catharsis with the rest of the world.

Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib through Dec. 30 part of the “Art of CONFRONTation” series Katzen Arts Center, American University 4400 Massachusetts Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 885-1300 or visit www.american.edu/museum.

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999