Botero Sees the World's True Heavies at Abu Ghraib

In a series of paintings and drawings, artist Fernando Botero reflects on the 2004 prisoner abuse scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
In a series of paintings and drawings, artist Fernando Botero reflects on the 2004 prisoner abuse scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
By Erica Jong
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 4, 2007

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.

Held by their hair, their hands, their manacles, the prisoners seldom come face-to-face with their torturers. They are beaten by hands outside the picture frame, urinated on by men whose faces rarely appear. A bound prisoner wears red panties and a bra -- obviously against his will. The torture is anonymous and masked. Even the prisoners are masked so the torturers cannot be identified. But Botero knows who they are. They are the same fat people whose antics he has previously appeared to delight in.

As a result of this astonishing series of drawings and paintings, we know he was not celebrating these people, only waiting for an opportunity to show their true nature. They are cannibals who feed off their brothers. They deal in the anguish of human flesh.

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.)

What is this need people have to abuse each other, then boast about it? What is this need to make others powerless before them, to see them bleed and scream and beg for mercy? Psychologists theorize that torturers are repeating their infantile impotence by inflicting it on others. That seems glib to me. Empathy is a rare human quality, but it is essential to our humanity.

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.

Susan Sontag wrote that the Abu Ghraib photographs showed "the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality." Is this true?

I doubt it. I think that most of the people who see these Botero images will be as horrified as I am. Complicity in torture is invisible to most people. They do not know what they can do to prevent it -- hence their passivity.

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