Monday, January 29, 2007

Abu Ghraib's horrific images drove artist Fernando Botero into action

"Fernando Botero must number among the most famous painters alive....

But Botero, 74, took everyone by surprise when he devoted a series of drawings and paintings to the torture of Iraqi prisoners by American security personnel at Abu Ghraib detention center, west of Baghdad.

UC Berkeley, through its Center for Latin American Studies, has brought many of Botero's Abu Ghraib pictures to the West Coast for the first time for a show, opening today in the university's Doe Library.

The artist never expected the work to achieve the notoriety it has.....

"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," he said. "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."

In all, he produced 87 drawings and paintings on the subject.

His New York gallery, which presented the Abu Ghraib work for the first time in the United States, received some hate mail for its trouble, some visitors evidently perceiving the work as anti-American.

"Anti-American it's not," Botero said emphatically. "Anti-brutality, anti-inhumanity, yes...."

"They are absolutely not for sale," he said.

Instead, he has offered to give them to any museum that will commit to keeping some of them on view at all times. Perhaps that, as much as their content, has led to occasional imputations of anti-American sentiments.

"I already have an offer from Germany," Botero said, "from the Kunsthalle Würth, near Stuttgart. But I think they should be here" -- in the United States -- "or in Baghdad. My hope is that they will not disappear into some museum's storage."....

"Art is important," Botero said, "because when people start to forget, art reminds them what happened. Like 'Guernica.' People would not remember the tragedy of Guernica today if it were not for that painting.".....

Partly as a consequence of Berkeley's interest, the Katzen Arts Center at American University in Washington will show the entire Abu Ghraib series later this year."

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