Human Rights & Art: Fernando Botero's Abu Ghraib

by Lauren Anderson

Fernando Botero’s compelling and controversial collection Abu Ghraib is currently being exhibited in the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center. The graphic, often grotesque drawings and paintings inundate the viewer with images of abuse and injustice. His bold uses of color in the deep red of the blood or yellow-greenish skin create a loud statement: these works cannot be ignored.

Botero’s focus is clearly on the victims. The oppressors are usually no more than a menacing hand or humiliating stream of urine coming from outside the painting. In one painting in which Botero does reveal the tormenter, “Abu Ghraib 89,” the man’s eyes are careless and empty as he tortures his victim. Most of the figures he depicts are blindfolded or they have sacks over their heads. By hiding their specific identities, Botero implies that the injustices at Abu Ghraib were just as much an assault on humanity as they were on the individuals who endured them, giving an already powerful statement even greater weight.

The paintings and drawings are repetitive in the same way images of the Iraq War are repetitive in the news. They are overwhelming, distressing, and hard-hitting. Images of rope-bound, naked men appear again and again in different forms. In some paintings, a prisoner is being pinned to the ground or attacked by a ferocious dog. In “Abu Ghraib 43,” the prisoner is being beaten by a prison guard. Often, the victims are shown alone in the paintings and drawings, forced to endure the humiliation of standing nude, bound, and blindfolded in the prison hallways or cells. In one of the most famous pieces from the collection, “Abu Ghraib 67,” a single, rope-bound hand reaches limply upwards in front of a black background. The weak position of the hand implies heartbreaking submission, a theme that can be seen throughout the collection.

Botero’s fascinating artistic political commentary is certainly worth seeing. His unconventional style of portraiture and use of color mixed with the statement he makes with this collection are a powerful and thought-provoking combination. Despite the controversy surrounding the graphic nature of the work, the necessary truth of what happened at Abu Ghraib is one Americans must confront. There is no better way to do it than through this outstanding exhibit.

The American University Museum is the first museum in the United States that has exhibited Botero’s conflict-ridden collection, although the works have been displayed before in the United States. Previously, the paintings have been exhibited at New York's Marlborough Gallery and at the University of California-Berkeley's Doe Library. Botero has complained to the media that most museums in the U.S. won't show the works. Since 2005, the collection has been traveling around Europe. It will be at the American University Museum until the end of this year before traveling to Mexico.

("Abu Ghraib 7," pictured above, is often used to promote Botero's exhibit. This representation is from the Marlborough Gallery of New York City. To see a video of some of the selections from Botero's Abu Ghraib, please check below.)

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