Thursday, November 8, 2007

Botero's Rage and the Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Opened on November 6, 2007, a new exhibition at American University's Katzen Center for the Arts, Washington DC, features a series of 79 paintings and drawings by Colombian artist FERNANDO BOTERO depicting the unimaginable torture, humiliation and abuse of inmates now known to have occurred at Abu Ghraib prison between October and December of 2003. Broadly speaking, the works can be grouped thematically: Terror, Dehumanization, Agony and what may be called the "Disembodiment of Accountability".

Born in 1932 in Medellin, Botero is perhaps best known for his portraits and sculptures of voluminous [read fat] men, women and children, and for colorful folksy scenes from his native land.

In a pre-exhibit discussion moderated by Dean Louis Goodman of the AU School of International Service, Botero described his intense feeling of rage as the primary propellant for embarking on this exceedingly emotional, graphic and controversial series. He went on to say that he, like so many others around the world, looked up to the United States as a champion of human rights and as a model of democracy for others to emulate; and that the extremely dark and sadistic violence carried out at the prison represented such a complete disconnect that he was impelled to confront and address the events through his art.

The first of the series, Abu Ghraib 1, 2004, sets the tone quickly for the terror that follows. The sanguine (red charcoal) on paper drawing, 30 x 40 cm, depicts two attack dogs advancing on two naked, blindfolded men bound at the wrists. One man lies prostrate on the floor in the foreground while the other appears to be trying to back away on his knees. Inches from the faces of the men, the dogs are barely restrained by taut leashes held by a disembodied forearm and gloved hand. The sense of complete terror is powerfully conveyed not in the eyes of the prisoners--for they are blindfolded--but in the anguished expressions of their mouths.

While the human figures in these drawings are more proportional than the more sensual and "puffed up" figures the artist is better known for, Botero remains true to form as he manipulates volume and proportion within the overall framework of the compositions by making the dogs almost as large as, or in some cases--larger than the wretched men.

In a terrifying exposition on the theme of the dogs, mythic monster-like creatures akin to the Beast of Gevaudan, Botero goes on to produce no fewer than 9 other large and small works that show the rapacious canines poised to attack--or actually mauling--the naked, bound and blindfolded prisoners. In Abu Ghraib 45, a large tableau from 2005, oil on canvas, 200 x 166 cm, a massive bloodthirsty dog pins down a bloody-backed prisoner on the floor of the cell and appears poised to sodomize its half-naked quarry against the backdrop of steely mute prison bars.

As in many other pieces in the series, the languishing figure in Abu Ghraib 45, with streams of blood pouring from the face, evokes images from Christian iconography. Explains essayist David Ebony in the newly minted exhibition catalog published by Prestel:

"An erudite and conscientious student of art history, Botero always embellishes his works with art-historical references and the Abu Ghraib series is no exception. Allusions to Christian iconography from Medieval and early Renaissance art are apparent, despite the irony of using Christian motifs in the depiction of Arab men and women. Especially evident are his references to the passion of Christ. Compare, for instance, the bleeding blindfolded man in Abu Ghraib 66 with the anguished Christ in "Man of Sorrows" paintings by Hans Memling (after 1490), in the Christian Museum, Esztergom, and by Albrecht Bouts (1452-1549) , in the Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lyon. Also referenced are the sacred images of martyred saints in Baroque art. The strained limbs of the tethered prisoners in Abu Ghraib 20, 31, 41 and 43 echo, for example, those of the central figure in The Martyrdom of Saint Phillip (1639) by Jusepe de Ribera, in the Prado."

Though prisoners at Abu Ghraib should never be compared to Jesus Christ (spotless lamb) or to any of the saints--Christian or other, the evocation of the passion and of Christian martyrdom provides the viewer a vehicle to explore more universal themes and to consider the larger moral question as to whether the extreme maltreatment of another human being can ever be justified if we call ourselves members of one human race, irrespective of religious belief or affiliation. All together, the series challenges us to examine the outer limits of our own humanity, as well as the limits of what is provided for by the rule of law as embodied in the Constitution of the United States and the Geneva Conventions, to which the US was a prime sponsor and signatory.

If the viewer's sense of sheer terror is crystallized in works containing the theme of the dog-beasts, Abu Ghraib 59, 2005, 133 x 150 cm, oil on canvas, and others like it, captures all too well the utter dehumanization of two prisoners seen through the bars from the outside--one hooded with hands tied behind his back, lying on his side on the prison floor, totally naked except for a pink brazier; the other man, also naked and hooded, hands unbound and raised to fend off ostensible blows, is shown being made to sit atop the other as a stream of urine pours down on them from the penis of of an unseen soldier. Abu Ghraib 57 depicts piles of prisoners made to take part in an orgiastic horror-show while Abu Ghraib 55, as others, brings the theme of dehumanization to its full measure with the graphic depiction of prisoners being sodomized with sticks, or being forced to perform mock sexual acts on one another, particularly repugnant to men in the Muslim world.

A third thematic grouping of works zooms in on the physical agony of the torture, as in Abu Ghraib 44, a triptych whose middle panel shows a bloodied, hooded, naked-from-the-waist-down prisoner strung up by his left ankle, the right leg akimbo, hands tied behind his back, and only able to rest his weight on his head, neck and left shoulder. As in the works that illustrate terror, the real sense of agony comes through the expression of the doomed figure's mouth, teeth and lips.

Although the artist sometimes shows the perpetrators of these crimes in full, often they are only partially represented by a disembodied, gloved hand, a booted foot or an anonymous stream of urine protruding from the periphery of the canvas to strike, prod, restrain, pin down, or humiliate the figures in the paintings. Of all the horrors we are confronted with in this brutal series, perhaps the most subtle element is that of disembodied accountability. As in the real case of Abu Ghraib, we are not permitted to fully see who is responsible for the torture. The act is sterile, anonymous, secret, out of sight.

In his comments to the audience on November 6, Botero, when asked about the response to his show, candidly replied that he had received both very positive reactions as well as plenty of hate-mail and death threats. As for the writer, I would only say that if, in the course of rivers of 24-hour news and Internet flotsam and jetsam, our ability to process the significance of certain events gets easily washed down stream, Botero's disturbing exhibition provides us with an uncomfortable window of opportunity to freeze-frame some of the fleeting images and emotions we felt when the story first broke; and to ponder anew what kind of people and policies we want to hold up as representing the values of our great nation, The United States of America.

"Art never changed anything." Botero exhorted. But he hopes that his paintings will at least serve as a reminder of what happened so that we can perhaps take a different course in the future. If you can, go see this painful exhibit. No matter your opinion, you will certainly be affected, and you just might be changed.