World-renowned Colombian artist Fernando Botero responded to his horror and anger over the obscenity of torture at Abu Ghraib by spending two years in his art studio obsessively churning out canvasses. The result is a devastating 79-piece series of drawings and paintings. “They are among Mr. Botero’s best work,” wrote New York Times critic Roberta Smith, “and in an art world where responses to the Iraq war have been scarce—literal or obscure—they stand out.” Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger spoke with Botero last November at the world premiere of the complete Abu Ghraib collection, held at American University Museum in Washington, D.C.
Sojourners: Do you see these paintings more as “art of confrontation” or as vehicles for restoring compassion?
Botero: Art is completely useless in the sense that, in the moment it happened, it doesn’t have any interest. But over time [art] becomes a reminder. When the newspapers don’t talk [about the event] anymore, the art reminds us.
Sojourners: Where does this series of paintings fit in your own spiritual journey?
Botero: All the images of Christ and suffering and torture that are in art history—I’m very familiar with that. In the moment I did these paintings, I didn’t think about those things. But I’m sure it came to me, because everything that you see [in your life] comes back transformed. I wasn’t thinking about Christ, but when some people mentioned that these paintings have something to do with Christ, then I saw that actually there is a relation between the Passion of Christ and these paintings.
Sojourners: By focusing on the victims and leaving the torturers aside, you call into question the myth of redemptive violence—that if we use violence, we can secure order and security. Botero: In some of the paintings you see a hand or the boot. Sometimes you see the actual soldier manipulating the prisoner. But it’s true that I didn’t realize tshat I was doing only the victims until somebody pointed that out to me. Perhaps it was just more interesting from the point of view of painting to do these nudes than to do these [insignias] and uniforms and this and that.
Sojourners: In many of these paintings there is just the edge of a window with a little bit of external light coming in.
Botero: In every painting there should be one point that is white and one point that is black, like salt and pepper. The black becomes black because there is white next to it. Then there is also the question of interpretation, because people saw freedom reflected in that little window. But I didn’t think about that. I was just thinking about painting.