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Botero Sees the World's True Heavies at Abu Ghraib

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.

Botero, inspired by Picasso's "Guernica," broke through his passivity by making these works. Many people have contrasted them with his supposedly "happy" fat people. I don't think Botero's fat people are happy at all. I think they are also political -- the haves fattening on the invisible have-nots.

"The whole world and myself were very shocked that the Americans were torturing prisoners in the same prison as the tyrant they came to remove," Botero said to the San Francisco Chronicle. "The United States presents itself as a defender of human rights and of course as an artist I was very shocked with this and angry. The more I read, the more I was motivated. . . . I think Seymour Hersh's article was the first one I read. I was on a plane and I took a pencil and paper and started drawing. Then I got to my studio and continued with oil paintings. I studied all the material I could. It didn't make sense to copy, I was just trying to visualize what was really happening there."

What will be our reaction to his visualization? Will we continue in passivity? Will we deny that such horrors still take place? Or will Botero's art have the power to change us?

We might also ask what power art can have in general. Did Goya stop cruelty in his time, or Picasso in his? No. But the role of the artist in raising our consciousness and bearing witness is essential. The artist makes us open our eyes to our own cruelty, our own passivity, our own indifference.

For that alone, his witnessing matters.

I am looking at another recent work by Botero in which a roly-poly woman is stuffing her face with an apple as if she were a Christmas pig. Before the Abu Ghraib series I would have shrugged off this image. Now I see all Botero's work as a record of the brutality of the haves against the have-nots. I would be surprised if the Abu Ghraib series of images did not completely change our view of Botero as an artist.

Novelist, poet and nonfiction writer Erica Jong wrote a catalogue essay for the Milan exhibition of Botero's Abu Ghraib pictures and has a Botero sculpture of Eve with a snake and an apple in her apartment in New York. Her most recent book is "Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life."

If you go: "Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib" opens Tuesday at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, at the intersection of Massachusetts and Nebraska avenues NW. Through Dec. 30. Open Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Free. 202-885-1300.

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