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UC Berkeley Displays Botero Images of Abu Ghraib Brutality

By Judith Scherr
Friday January 26, 2007

A massive dog with bared fangs stands atop the blindfolded half-naked man lying face down on the jail-cell floor; an unclothed hooded man is hoisted upside down by the rope tightly tied around his left ankle; a prison guard with large army boots beats and kicks a bound prisoner. 

These images of Abu Ghraib are among the 47 paintings and sketches by celebrated Colombia-born artist Fernando Botero, 74, to be exhibited in the Doe Library on the UC Berkeley Campus Jan. 29 to March 25. The exhibit, which Botero will open Monday at 6 p.m. at 190 Doe Library, is sponsored jointly by The Center for Latin American Studies, Boalt Hall Law School and the Doe Library. 

“While the photos [of Abu Ghraib] are shocking and disturbing, the paintings add a profoundly different dimension. It’s like visiting the issues for the first time,” said Center for Latin American Studies Chair Harley Shaiken in an interview with the Daily Planet. 

The purpose of bringing the exhibit to the university is to present the artwork as a basis for discussion and analysis, he said. 

The paintings were first shown in Rome last year, then in Germany and Greece. The only exhibit in the United States ran for a month in the fall at the Marlborough Gallery in Manhattan.  

While Bolero’s work is exhibited in a number of U.S. galleries, the artist has found it difficult to find venues for his Abu Ghraib series in the U.S., which is where, as he told the Independent of London, he wanted the paintings displayed most of all. 

“The matter concerns that country above all,” he said. 

Asked why the San Francisco Museum for Modern Art did not host the exhibition, an SFMOMA spokesperson said it was not asked.  

Shaiken, however, did not wait to be asked. Having read reviews of the New York exhibition, he solicited the exhibit. 

The paintings are controversial, he acknowledged. Some people might believe “viewing the exhibit is unpatriotic,” he said. “But it’s more patriotic to engage the ideas and debate the differences. That’s the cornerstone of a democratic society.”  

Botero is not known for political paintings, at least not until recently. For 50 years, his work was of pastoral scenes featuring ordinary people. However, between 1999 and 2004, Botero created a series of paintings of Colombia’s long-lasting internal war.  

“He had decided he could not stay silent over a conflict he called absurd,” said Juan Forero, writing in the May 7, 2005 New York Times. 

Reuters reported that it was on an airplane trip that Botero, reading about the torture at Abu Ghraib, asked a stewardess for paper, so he could sketch.  

“The rage I felt at that moment made me take a decision,” he told Reuters. “The day the newspapers stop writing about [Abu Ghraib] and people stop talking about it, this art could serve as a permanent witness to a great crime that was committed.” 

Botero told the Colombian magazine Diners: “This conduct by the Americans was a total shock for me.”  

The exhibit is open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in room 190 Doe Library. 

A number of events associated with the exhibit are planned: 

• A conversation between Robert Haas, U.S. poet laureate 1995-1997, and Botero, Jan. 29, 4 p.m., Chevron Auditorium, International House. The event is free, with one ticket per person distributed at 3 p.m. at International House; 

• A panel on “Art and Violence,” Jan. 31, 4 p.m., Morrison Library, Doe Library; 

• A panel on “Torture, Human Rights and Terrorism,” 4 p.m., March 7, Boalt Hall School of Law. 


Imaage: Fernando Botero’s “Abu Ghraib 72” (2005), oil on canvas, is one of the paintings in the UC Berkeley exhibit.