Fernando Botero's Abu Ghraib Series Provokes And Stuns With Graphic Depictions of Torture

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Fernando Botero at the Berkeley Art Museum
Photos of Botero's Abu Ghraib Series

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Correction Appended

You will feel filthy after seeing the Berkeley Art Museum's Abu Ghraib series exhibit by Fernando Botero.

Immediately upon entering the exhibit, you face a pitiful, overweight man drawn up in oils. Naked, he stumbles with his back toward the viewer. His hands are tied behind him and a red hood loosely hangs over his head like a ridiculous tube sock. His knees, slightly turned toward each other as he seemingly tries to move out of view of the picture's frame, are bloodied and bruised. He moves everywhere and nowhere in the 12 x 12 space of his prison cell.

As you continue through the gallery, other scenes are saturated in shadows and painfully dull light, starkly contrasting the glare of the prisoners' live-wire fear. They are depicted in agonizingly compromising positions, punctuated by mortal splashes of scarlet. Beyond the bars, there is a taunting glimpse of a prison corridor and a hazy yellow window.

These hellish images, first displayed in Berkeley at Doe Library in Jan. 2007, were created by the Colombian-born Botero as a reaction to The New Yorker's 2004 article by Seymour Hersh, "Torture at Abu Ghraib." During a plane ride to Paris, Botero first read the article and then fervently began to sketch.

The result is 56 vividly imagined scenes of the atrocities that occurred at the prison, confronting the viewer with what seems to be holy artwork gone terribly wrong. In these works, Botero uses a variety of media: sanguine on paper, graphite sketches, watercolor. The most striking pieces are presented as triptych oil paintings on canvas. Triptychs are three separate panels that feature distinct but related images. They originally frequented medieval art practices and usually depicted sacred scenes. Botero's work hints at this, drawing on a solemn aesthetic in velvety hues. Rich sienna, olive and gold highlight the human form and add depth to the hushed environment in the background, like an idyllic portrait of the Renaissance.

However, Botero's subject matter zeros in on dark sin rather than peaceful, contemplative religious scenes. The prisoners' bodies strain against their aggressors, beg to live and struggle internally to regain their dignity. With empathetic attention to the men's plight, Botero's pieces boast a heightened sense of animation that might be found in Diego Rivera's paintings. The series may embrace the pious whisper of the triptych format, but it shatters the religious connotations altogether with its focus on merciless abuse and all-consuming despair.

In another gruesome scene, a man is slammed belly-down on the floor as a muscular dog bearing bloody fangs pins him by the shoulder blades. A blindfold squeezes against his eyes, his mouth drawn into an extreme upside-down smile. Other prisoners suffer through the nightmare of rape or are pissed on by faceless guards or forced into a collapsing pyramid of bodies, stripped of clothes and human dignity. Like the prisoners, you feel trapped, jailed in by the heavy frames of the paintings. Even so, you logically know that you can walk away at any moment and the experience can be written off as a bad dream--an uncomfortable experience. The prisoners can't, leaving you with a gnawing guilt as you are helpless to relieve them.

In frame after frame, humanity seems to have been pathetically reduced to barbarous intention and incomprehensible suffering. Fury sets the pieces on fire in an otherwise barren setting. Surrounded by the rawness of flesh, running blood and grief, the collection immediately lends itself to an emotionally charged, violent twist of the gut. It counteracts this with a reason-based pill that's hard to swallow and challenges the onlooker to answer the discomforting questions: Are we men? Who's the brute? Who's the beast? Just how holy is this cause?

The series has now made its way into the BAM's permanent collection as a gift from the artist and will be on display through Feb. 7, 2010. Botero's work was never as popularly embraced in the US as that of some other Latin-American artists. However, he intensely preserves a lurid American narrative in the Abu Ghraib series. While other artists have focused on the war in Iraq as a whole, Botero attacks the explosive heart of it with his Abu Ghraib series. Because of his unabashed veracity, Botero has carved a deep honesty in the contemporary art scene, not unlike Dalton Trumbo with his novel "Johnny Got His Gun." With the graphic, beautifully executed images, we realize that this is not a war that impacts just soldiers. It is a war that changes people.

Correction: Monday, October 5, 2009
An earlier version of this article misspelled the word "Colombian."

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Sara Hayden is the lead visual arts critic. Contact her at sha[email protected]

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