Botero’s Abu Ghraib Series and the American Consciousness

In October 2006, internationally renowned Columbian artist Fernando Botero exhibited an important and jarring collection of new work at Manhattan’s Marlborough Gallery.  A visible departure from his whimsical robust figures popular in the international art market, Botero’s Abu Ghraib series (2004-05) of paintings and drawings are overtly political, haunting and difficult to confront.  The series surprised much of the American art scene.  Yet this is not the first time the artist addressed distinctively political subject matter in his work; much of his oeuvre deals with diverse aspects of life in his native country, including several periods of turmoil.  The paintings and drawings were introduced to the world in early April 2005 and were reproduced alongside an exclusive interview conducted by Columbia’s Diners magazine.  In the interview, the artist described how shocked he was to learn of the crimes committed on behalf of “a country that presents itself as a model of compassion, justice and civilization” (Diners, 4/11/05).  Compelled to comment on the “horror” of the crimes, his images are taken directly from the reports of torture that surfaced from the notorious prison in 2004, specifically those documented by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker.  Twenty miles outside Baghdad, Abu Ghraib was renovated and reopened as a detention center by American forces shortly after the US-led invasion and subsequent occupation in 2003, but soon fell under sweeping criticism when photographs of American soldiers torturing Iraqi detainees were leaked to the press.

True to the nature of the original photographs, Botero’s series projects the unimaginable terror experienced by his Iraqi subjects as they are assaulted by American military personnel and hired “civilian” contractors.  In nearly 90 works, Iraqi detainees are shown in several instances of torture — stripped, blindfolded and tied.  The exaggerated dimensions of their beaten (often bleeding) bodies occupy the greater part of the compositions, resembling the voluminous figures of the artist’s previous works.  Yet there is an evident difference in their physicality, an innate tension that emanates from their beings.  Absent is the seemingly airy and sensual monumentality of inflated bodies whose contours are accentuated by round, soft strokes.  While they maintain a colossal presence, Botero’s Abu Ghraib subjects are noticeably more compact in volume, their bodies rendered in tighter muscular forms.  Their postures speak of not only physical pain but of an internal heaviness that appears as though it is on the verge of implosion.  Details of their figures are accentuated, their ribcages appear and stomach muscles contract while this weight seems to nearly collapse upon itself as the tormented are contorted in physical and psychological anguish.

How is it that an artist is able to take the act of viewing from voyeurism to the reconstruction?  A precedent to this type of art in the U.S. is the work of painter Leon Golub, best known for his large-scale politically charged work.  In an interview conducted by Michael Newman, Golub stresses the importance of being able to draw the viewer into the composition in his groundbreaking 1970s-80s “Mercenaries” series:

It’s a good feeling to know that the work is aggressive enough to hold its own — I don’t mean with other art but reality. . . . How events rush in on us, how domination and control are effected; our connections to the mercs and the interrogators, how do we step into and back from these interrogations for example, our voyeurisms, our disaffections and uses of violence, what we ignore, acknowledge permit.  These are only paintings!  So what is their reality index?  Am I able to edge such voyeurisms and disaffections?  Can these paintings be inserted into our reconstructions of what is going on? (Leon Golub: Mercenaries and Interrogations, exhibition catalog, 1982)

While art critic Roberta Smith asserts that Botero has created “the needed buffer to help us face the unbearable and maintain some hope” (New York Times 11/15/06), the exact opposite can be argued — it is the raw, unabashed nature in which reality is depicted that gives the works their intensity.  Like Golub, Botero breaks through the ever-present “buffer” that protects the American consciousness from the demons of its nation’s history and contemporary state.

When describing his motivations for creating the recent series, Botero often references Picasso’s iconic Guernica: “No one would have ever remembered the horrors of Guernica if not for the painting” (AP 4/12/05).  Many have argued that formalistically and historically Guernica and Botero’s series have little in common.  Although each work belongs to different artistic and historical periods, the projection of human suffering within the specificity of a political context is what makes both so profound.  Golub described the impact of first seeing Picasso’s painting at an early age: 

It looked fantastic, dramatic, an existential, political representation.  I don’t know if I thought in quite those terms then?  But Guernica was an example of what an artist in our time could do: that one could do something that big and strong and which stood out in terms of the world and what was going on. (Leon Golub: Mercenaries and Interrogations, exhibition catalog, 1982)

Although art critic Arthur C. Danto observes that “Botero’s Abu Ghraib series immerses us in the experience of suffering” (The Nation, 11/27/06), like others, he has dismissed the parallels of these works.  The number of artists the 1937 piece has influenced is immeasurable, yet Danto even discredits the magnitude of Picasso’s painting as a “Cubist work that can serve a purely decorative function if one is unaware of its meaning.”  He is correct in his claim that upon viewing Botero’s work, “The pain of others has seldom felt so close, or so shaming to its perpetrators.”  However, let us not forget that Guernica has been perceived to possess this same complexity throughout contemporary American history.  In 1970, the activist-artist collective Art Workers Coalition used the massive work as part of a staged political tableau to protest the Vietnam War at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where Guernica was on loan.  More recently, prior to Colin Powell’s U.N. address that outlined the U.S.’s argument for invading Iraq in the early months of 2003, a replica of the piece that would serve as a backdrop for the former Secretary of State’s press conference was covered by U.N. officials.

Fernando BoteroWhen Botero’s series made its U.S. premiere last year, several critics compared the paintings and drawings to a number of those created by Golub.  Like the Abu Ghraib series, Golub’s “Vietnam,” “Mercenaries,” and “Interrogations” works recreate the atrocities committed abroad, away from the eyes of the American public, on behalf of American political and economic interests.  In fact several of the Columbian artists’ images — such as the drawing Abu Ghraib 37 (2005), in which a detainee is hung by his leg, naked and tortured — resemble works from Golub’s above mentioned series.  It is possible that Botero looked at these images prior to creating his recent paintings, but most likely the similarities stem from the fact that American tactics of torture and violence have continued over the last four decades.

In a letter to The Nation following Danto’s review of Botero’s work, Jerry Blumenthal, the director and producer of the revealing documentary “Golub: Late Works Are The Catastrophes” (2004), expressed his surprise at the omission of Golub’s work when noting the art historical precedents that could have influenced the Abu Ghraib series: 

Golub’s huge canvases depicting death squads, interrogations and mercenaries, most done in the last quarter of the twentieth century, in some instances predict many of the details in the horrific photos from Abu Ghraib, giving the lie to our leaders’ protests that we don’t believe in torture. (The Nation, 2/12/07)

Danto responded by asserting that while Botero’s were specific, Golub’s are to be seen within a universal context: 

The torturers themselves were, as the title entails, soldiers of fortune, of no identifiable nationality, who were clearly relishing their labor.  In political truth, American “advisers” were involved in the practices, but Golub’s was a protest against the inhumanity of the dirty wars of modern times.  The interrogators were generic.  For this reason, I did not mention him in my review of Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib paintings, in which it was common knowledge that the perpetrators were American military personnel, possibly enacting official policy. (The Nation, 2/12/07)

Oddly enough, Blumenthal’s film documents Golub at the opening of his 1985 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. articulating his motivations:

I want these paintings to represent power relationships in the modern world.  Our [American] foreign policy is that we subsidize actions like this, you know, in various parts of the world, you see.  I would say that virtually every country does things of this kind, and the most powerful countries do it the most.

While Golub’s monumental paintings possess a universal quality, as the use of torture has been documented in political conflicts throughout the world for centuries, the contexts in which he created the works were matched with specific historical references that pointed to the American endorsement of violence.  As a politically astute American artist painting during the Vietnam War and the U.S.’s covert operations in Latin America, it is impossible to dismiss the intention of his work, especially when the artist himself repeatedly stresses these references:

There is a certain ressentiment, an aggressive showing of these images right back at a society which tolerates these practices, which hatches them, like saying, ‘you’re not going to evade this, you’re not going to pretend this doesn’t exist’. . . .  Part of the ambiguous strength of the paintings comes from the ambiguous strength of American power. (Leon Golub: Mercenaries and Interrogations, exhibition catalog, 1982)

Throughout his life, Golub’s work was constantly underrepresented and misunderstood, remaining on the edges of American art.  It is not possible to associate the “hope” or redemptive quality that Roberta Smith attributes to Botero’s work with the American artist.  He was relentlessly in the face of the public, both with his work and activism.  Lucy Lippard‘s important documentation of the American art scene during the American war in Vietnam, A Different War: Vietnam in Art (1990), which accompanied a touring exhibition of the same title, describes a number of antiwar actions in which Golub and his partner, the artist Nancy Spero, were involved, including several open-letter advertisements in the New York Times that condemned “U.S. intervention in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic” and “the persecution of Blacks and antiwar activists.”  Given the convergence of the current political climate on the rarely publicized responses by artists to the American invasion of Iraq and the crimes committed during the ongoing occupation, it is of no surprise that censorship has played a crucial role in shaping what is projected as American art.  In the muddled arena of politics, where power determines virtually every aspect of American thought and culture, the issues that Golub chose to address went against those sanctioned by the status quo.

Susan Sontag’s essay “Regarding the Tortures of Others,” which appeared shortly after the Abu Ghraib photographs were revealed to the world, was an exception to the evasive — sometimes apologist — reactions to the images.  In her essay, Sontag outlines the socially sanctioned and institutionalized behavior of violence that plagues American society:

The issue is not whether the torture was done by individuals (i.e. “not by everybody”) — but whether is it was systematic.  Authorized.  Condoned.  All acts are done by individuals.  The issue is not whether a majority or minority of Americans performs such acts but whether the nature of the policies prosecuted by this administration and the hierarchies deployed to carry them out makes such acts likely. . . .  What is illustrated by these photographs is as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality. (New York Times Magazine, 5/23/04)

Like Golub, for Sontag it is the larger picture, one that points to a hierarchy of power relationships that cannot be dismissed.  Yet when the images of Abu Ghraib appeared in 2004, these facts were ignored.  Three years later, they continue to be brushed aside while thousands of American troops and mercenaries remain in Iraq and the assault wages on.  In his September 2004 essay for Artforum titled “American Self-Consciousness in Politics and Art,” Danto attributed the brutality depicted in the photographs to a sexual imagination:

Plato once described the despot as performing the actions that the rest of us merely dream of, and what the Abu Ghraib images testify to is the democratization of despotic fantasy. . . .  There is little doubt that America is going to have to take measures to ensure that the impulse to submit its captives to sexual torture remains unenacted and confined within the boundaries of fantasy.

Danto stresses that it is “the degree to which American consciousness has been penetrated by the imagery of pornography” that lead the soldiers and contractors to perform such acts.  Thus, according to his reading, the torture, rape, and humiliation experienced by the Iraqi men shown in the images are merely the byproducts of sins of flesh, to be understood within the human capacity of sexual desire.  Although several of the detainees were sodomized and forced to perform sexual acts, the term “rape” was rarely used to describe the crimes committed.  Whereas rape is an inexcusable act, one that attests to the brutal violation of an individual, equating the unimaginable with something acceptable such as sexual fantasy reduces the severity of these crimes, allowing the American public to easily digest what took place.  Therefore, the reality from which these acts were fostered and socialized is avoided and our collective psyche can move on.  Danto’s argument is not far from others that appeared in the mainstream press, which described the American perpetrators as having been caught in moments of weakness, or simply blamed individuals directly, as if their actions were isolated incidents free of influence and broader implications.  Since the photographs surfaced, other vicious American crimes have received widespread media coverage, such as the massacre of Iraqi civilians in Haditha and the raping and killing of a young Iraqi girl and the subsequent massacre of her family in Mahmudiyah.  These too have now slipped from our consciousness.

To address what occurred at Abu Ghraib within a larger social framework, as in the work of Susan Sontag, is to earnestly take on the issue of the U.S.’s destruction of Iraq.  However, for the vast majority of Americans this cannot consciously be dealt with, for to investigate the unfolding of the American invasion is to begin uncovering our longtime abysmal existence.  One of the greatest problems we face as a nation is not how the rest of the world perceives “us” or how we perceive “them — it is our perception of ourselves that plagues us most.  In “American Self-Consciousness in Politics and Art,” Danto stresses, “If only ‘They’ could see us as we see ourselves, from within!  ‘They’ would modulate their resentments and their anger.”  It is this continual denial of the reality that has been constructed at home that allows for our actions abroad.  Most sides of the American political spectrum are blindsided by their nostalgia for something that never was.  The very notion of “democracy” existing in a nation founded on the displacement and near annihilation of an indigenous population and the uprooting and enslavement of another, is a farce, especially when there has been little to no reparation for these crimes.  While the founding principles upon which our nation was established look great on paper, the actual historical core of our development is what impacts every aspect of our daily existence.  Yet we have come to believe that the “pursuit of happiness” in the U.S. is defined by the notion that every citizen is afforded the opportunity to live the “American dream.” 

Although the American art world would like audiences to believe that it is somehow a separate entity, a liberal establishment existing at the forefront of American society and culture, it often not only falls prey to historical amnesia but is directly influenced by virtually every realm of the political arena.  This accounts for the incessant refusal to acknowledge the limitations placed upon American art, which are implemented through institutional censorship, then accepted by a great majority of curators, critics and scholars.  Danto argues that “the making of art [in the U.S.] has been considered in terms of pursuit of happiness, as specified in the Declaration of Independence, and hence the exercise of a right, with no effort on the government’s part to say how it should be done” (Artforum, 9/04).  Yet just as rights only applied to a certain percentage of the population when the Declaration of Independence was written, whether an artist’s work is considered or exhibited often depends on their race.

If we look at the exclusion of African American artists, for example, who remain largely off the map in the mainstream art scene, we see how our nation’s past still determines the present.  “Legacies: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Slavery” (2006), an important exhibition of 32 contemporary African American artists, which dealt with the impact of slavery on contemporary American society, was held not at the Museum of Modern Art nor the Whitney Museum of American Art, but at the New York Historical Society, beyond the art world’s peripheries.  That an exhibition of contemporary art featuring leading African American artists was not organized by the nation’s foremost art institutions not only points to the rampant exclusion of artists of color but the evasion of the existing political and economic marginalization of “minority” communities.  The acceptance of this marginalization was exemplified by art critic Holland Cotter, when discussing the Studio Museum of Harlem’s groundbreaking exhibition “Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction 1964-1980” (2006).  When critiquing the limitations of exhibiting large works in the small galleries of the Studio Museum, his suggestions for a multi-venue exhibition were not New York’s foremost and spacious art museums, but the Bronx Museum of Arts and the campus galleries of the City University of New York (NY Times, 4/7/06).  Kara Walker‘s solo exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2006) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (2007), and an advertisement that uses a reproduction of a Horace Pippin self-portrait to announce that The Metropolitan Museum of Art is open on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, are a few of the more recent strides towards better representation offered to African American artists.

To provide artists of color with a substantial place in the pantheon of American art is to open a political Pandora’s Box since there is a strong possibility that the state of American race and class relations will be brought to the surface more than ever.  Like The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent exhibition “New Orleans After the Flood: Photographs by Robert Polidori” (2006), which featured images of destroyed homes devoid of human subjects, it is easier to maintain what we are told is the condition of our American fiber if we do so from a distance, without evidence in reach that proves otherwise. 

This tendency was demonstrated even in the most detailed discussions of Botero’s Abu Ghraib series when it premiered in the U.S.  In a catalog essay to Marlboro Gallery’s exhibition, David Ebony concludes his analysis with a blatant distortion of the facts.  Despite placing Botero’s series among a number of American works that demonstrate several examples of homegrown politically-motivated violence, including Andy Warhol’s Race Riot (1964), Philip Guston‘s early paintings of the 1930s and 40s depicting the Ku Klux Klan and Leon Golub’s “Interrogation Series,” Ebony cannot resign himself to the fact that Botero specifically addresses American crimes committed as ultimate acts of power, brutality, and dominance:

Is violent retaliation the only way to stop and prevent acts of senseless violence, or do they merely beget even more violence, destruction, and death?  Certainly, Botero, in his Abu Ghraib series, suggests that anyone with a sense of humanity must realize that fighting terrorist attacks with further acts of cruelty and terror is not the right solution.

The writer continues to link the American invasion of Iraq, and all its subsequent crimes, with the attacks of September 11th, irregardless of the fact that high American officials have come to publicly admit the invalidity of this belief.

Even those who oppose the war and call for the return of American forces refuse to fully admit that the destruction of Iraq and the ensuing disaster is due to the U.S.’s unfounded “preemptive” invasion.  One of the latest debates among the American political left of whether or not to support the Iraqi resistance reveals this existing schism.  In a response to Alexander Cockburn’s column “Support Their Troops?” (The Nation, 7/30/07, posted online 7/12/07), Phyllis Bennis condemns the writer’s remarks that empathizing with the Iraqi resistance would strengthen the American anti-war movement:

what is broadly named ‘the Iraqi Resistance’ is a set of largely unconnected armed factions (including some who attack Iraqi civilians as much as they do occupation troops). . . .  We know virtually nothing of what most factions stand for beyond opposition to the U.S. occupation and for myself, of the little that we do know, I don’t like so much. (The Nation, 9/10/07)

Prior to Bennis’ letter, Katha Pollitt articulated a similar reluctance to support “the Iraqi resistance” in a post on The Nation‘s Blog titled “2, 4, 6, 8!  This Beheading Is Really Great” (The Nation, 7/13/07).  Pollitt’s argument rests on her understanding that “the Iraqi resistance” is dominated by “theocrats, ethnic nationalists, die-hard Baathists, jihadis, kidnappers, beheaders and thugs” who have “tortured and killed trade union leaders, feminists, aid workers, school teachers and such.”  While she admits that previous armed groups supported by the American left were “far from perfect,” she justifies this solidarity by describing the social programs that many incorporated into their political agendas and by elaborating that they had support from the majority of the left, which included: “labor, churches, feminists, socialists, human rights activists, peace activists.”  To these examples she contrasts “the Iraqi resistance,” which she accuses of “burning down liquor stores and music shops, beating up unveiled women, suicide-bombing ordinary civilians, bringing back sharia law.”  Left out from her argument is the “collateral damage” resulting from the American invasion: the loss of lives, homes, civil infrastructure, cultural institutions, and natural resources and environment.

Pollitt emphasizes what she believes to be the non-secular characteristic of “the Iraqi resistance” as being a deterrent to the left’s support.  Although quick to dismiss and even demonize factions that might possess religious affiliations, Pollitt nonchalantly includes American Christian organizations such as “churches” as being part of the American left.  And while she refers to American forces as “our soldiers,” let us not forget their Commander-in-Chief, George W. Bush, who publicly divulged in 2003 that he turned to God for guidance when deciding to invade Iraq.

In a recent article in the New York Times describing a rise in the number of Iraqi detainees due to the increase of U.S. troops, a spokesman for the multinational forces’ detainee operations recently indicated, “Interestingly we’ve found that the vast majority are not inspired by jihad or hate for the coalition or Iraqi government — the vast majority are inspired by money” (8/25/07).  And so it is confirmed that, like much of the American military and “civilian” contractor population in Iraq, the majority of “the Iraqi resistance” takes up arms because of economic need.  In both cases, it is the policies of the American political system that created the environments in which engaging in armed combat is seen as a necessary means to economic advancement. 

Bennis, on the other hand, asserts that the American anti-war movement is working “to bring all the U.S. and ‘coalition’ troops and mercenaries home, dismantle the U.S. bases, and give up control of Iraq’s oil industry.”  Yet why are “mercenaries” — who have had no judicial ordinances to abide by in Iraq and are currently under investigation by the Iraqi government for unprovoked shootings of civilians — allowed by the American people to return home unaccountable for their actions?

In their arguments against supporting “the Iraqi resistance,” neither Bennis nor Pollitt address the thousands of Iraqis who have been killed by American troops and mercenaries or the fact that the current “sectarian” violence that plagues Iraq was instigated from the beginning by the U.S.’s organizing of the Iraqi government according to religious affiliations by stressing supposed ethnic and sectarian divisions.  For many in the Arab world and its diaspora, the creation of sectarian factions in Iraq is no surprise — we came to understand these tactics with similar division of the Lebanese government under the French mandate, which distributed power disproportionately to communities according to religious identities.  The Lebanese Civil War (1975-90), while glossed over as a “sectarian” conflict, was not about religious beliefs but economic and political power.  Decades later we see Lebanon unable to rectify its political system, while regional and international forces work diligently to ensure that the imbalance in power remains intact.

In their responses to Cockburn, Bennis and Pollitt also ignore the reports of journalists working in Iraq that dispel the American understanding of Iraqi “sectarian” violence and armed “resistance.”  There have been several articles written by Robert Fisk that point to the U.S.’s involvement in attacks on civilians, both in individual killings and car bombings in densely populated areas.  In an article titled “Seen through a Syrian Lens, ‘Unknown Americans’ Are Provoking Civil War in Iraq,” Fisk relays accounts given to him by both a Syrian source in Damascus and Iraqis in Baghdad that describe Iraqi policemen trained by American forces who unknowingly took up the task of detonating car bombs with mobile phones near mosques in crowded neighborhoods (The Independent, 4/28/06).  He cites his Syrian source as speculating that the U.S. is “trying to provoke an Iraqi civil war so that Sunni Muslim insurgents spend their energies killing their Shia co-religionists rather than soldiers of the Western occupation forces.” Fisk then elaborates:

In the anarchic and panic-stricken world of Iraq, there are many US groups — including countless outfits supposedly working for the American military and the new Western-backed Iraqi Interior Ministry — who operate outside any laws or rules.  No one can account for the murder of 191 university teachers and professors since the 2003 invasion — nor the fact that more than 50 former Iraqi fighter — bomber pilots who attacked Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war [–] have been assassinated in their home towns in Iraq in the past three years.

Despite this, like Bennis and Pollitt, much of the American public continues to believe that the situation in Iraq is clear cut and neatly organized into two camps: Us (“our” troops and contractors) and Them (the Iraqi insurgency that is out to not only kill “our” troops but ruin Iraq’s chances for “democracy”).  In the words of Robert Fisk:

I think it becomes a habit, this sort of thing.  Already the horrors of Abu Ghraib are shrugged away.  It was abuse, not torture.  And then up pops a junior officer in the United States charged for killing an Iraqi army general by stuffing him upside down in a sleeping bag and sitting on his chest.  And again, it gets few headlines.  Who cares if another Iraqi bites the dust?  Aren’t they trying to kill our boys who are out there fighting terror (The Independent, 6/3/06).

And so we find yet another American issue distorted by our refusal to admit that we have long been falling from grace and the course of our nation must drastically change.

Since first exhibiting his Abu Ghraib paintings and drawings, Botero has expressed his desire to donate the complete series to an American museum.  No institution stateside has been willing to accept his offer.  In the meantime, in an article titled “Can US Museums Help Win the War on Terror?” Jason Edward Kaufman reports that the U.S. State Department is funding a new international program aimed at advancing US foreign policy in conjunction with the American Association of Museums (The Art Newspaper, 7/07).

In November the American University’s Katzen Art Center in Washington D.C. will host the first complete showing of Botero’s Abu Ghraib series in the United States.

Maymanah Farhat is a specialist in modern and contemporary Arab art.   She is based in New York.  © Maymanah Farhat

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