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An Interview with Fernando Botero
by Rose Marie Berger
In November 2007 Fernando Botero visited the American University Museum in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the first showing anywhere of the complete 179 piece collection of his Abu Ghraib paintings and drawings. He was interviewed by Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger about the religious and political implications of art.
Berger: I want to read one quote from Marc Falkoff who is one of the attorneys working with the Guantanamo prisoners. He made a comment about this art exhibit…
Botero: He came here and saw it?
Berger: He saw the artwork online and allowed us to include poems from Guantanamo prisoners in the poetry collection Cut Loose the Body: An Anthology of Poems Responding to Torture and Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib Paintings. “In this wonderful project,” writes human rights attorney Marc Falkoff, editor of Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, “Botero and the poets begin to restore our humanity by making the victims of our complacency visible to us. We live in age in which our leaders have declared—in our names—that simulated drowning is not torture, that detainee suicides are ‘acts of asymmetric warfare,’ and that our prison camps are beyond the reach of our courts. In times like these, we must rely on art—the great vehicle for empathy—to restore to us our innate compassion ... and to move us toward protest and engagement.” Do you think these paintings confront or they evoke compassion?
Botero: Well, you know, these paintings… they don’t function for art in the actual situation, you see. Art is completely useless in the sense that, in the moment it happened, it doesn’t have any interest. But what is important is that over time it becomes a reminder. When the newspapers don’t talk any more the art is just to remind us and that’s very important.
Berger: You grew up in Colombia surrounded by the Colonial Baroque art of the Catholicism and the mestiza popular religious expressions of common people. You have immersed yourself in the Christian iconography of Western Europe. When I look at these paintings I see the Via Dolorosa, the Stations of the Cross of Christ. I see the biblical psalms filled with agony. Do you see these paintings as part of your own spiritual journey?
Botero: Well, let’s say, yes, I grew up in Colombia in an atmosphere of the religion with the Church and everything. But, believe me, I’m not too religious. More than that I have a good knowledge of art history because I lived for three years in Italy and of course all these images of Christ and suffering and torture and this and that, 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 you know everything that you see (in your life) comes back transformed. Then in a way 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.
Berger: You embody a lot of the religious iconography in these works. Does it still touch your spirit as an artist or do you only see it intellectually as part of art history?
Botero: Are you talking about religion or talking about the structure?
Berger: I’m asking about the spiritual aspects, not the institution of the Church.
Botero: Well, I don’t have any feeling for the Church. I am kind of quite indifferent to religion. I mean, I believe in God, of course I do. But I am not a practicing person.
Berger: In these paintings you chose to focus on the victims and mostly leave the torturers off to the sides. When you bring the viewer this close to the victim, then you destroy the myth that violence is redemptive. You unmask the scapegoat mechanism and reveal that it is not God who demands violence in support of order and security, but God instead who has become our victim. Would you call these works “religious art”?
Botero: Well, I’ll tell you in truth when I finished this series of paintings and people started to say that I left the perpetrators out then I realized that also. I was just painting and painting. Well, 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 that I was doing only the victims until somebody pointed that out to me. I don’t know why I did that. 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.
Berger: When you chose the colors, particularly the colors associated with the torturers—the blue of the glove and the boots, what were you thinking?
Botero: Well, you know, I did two kinds of things here. I did very light paintings. There are four or five that are very light paintings. There is [or isn’t] the same drama that is in the very dark paintings. You know, I started with the very dark paintings first. The image that I had in my mind was from what I saw in the photos was of this corridor and apparently many of these tortures happened during the night. There was kind of a darkness there in the corridor that I saw in the photos. The photos were very useful to me to see the atmosphere in which all this was happening. I didn’t copy any photos because it didn’t make any sense. There is not a single painting here that reproduces a photo. I just imagined the things in that atmosphere. That’s why the colors are a little bit dark. Then slowly, I said as a painter probably, I’m going to do this in a light color. You see then I had a problem of how to make the light paintings as dramatic as the dark ones, so that’s why I chose those colors.
Berger: In many of these paintings there is just the edge of a window with a little bit of external light coming in.
Botero: Well, yeah. Well, you know, that was… When you do a dark painting you have to have white. You know, in every painting at the end there should have been one point that should be white and one point should be black, like salt and pepper. In order for the black to become black it is because there is white next to it. Then you have the feeling that the black is really black. Then there is also the question of interpretation, because people saw freedom reflected in that little window, they saw freedom. But I didn’t think about that. I was just thinking about painting.
Berger: Will you read one of the poems here in Spanish? This one.
Botero: [Reads “Mi Tierra Se Desangra” by Consuelo Hernandez from Cut Loose the Body]
Mi Tierra Se Desangra
de ese trozo de tierra yo les hablo,
de caminos destruidos,
de hermanas que marchan como hormigas
por predios sin amparo,
de campesinos acribillados
entre las balas del (para)militar y el guerrillero,
de obreros que caen como fruto desgajado
por un huracán inoportuno.
En esta tarde triste de Noviembre
se me torna opaca la mirada
me voy quedando ciega
en este desfile de desastres
con el miedo que roba la alegría
caminamos contando los difuntos.
¿Dónde enterrar este horror
esta violencia siamesa de la vida,
abrir el cielo a esta luz de otoño
y descubrir el palacio de buenas intenciones?
¡y no más!
¡No más guerras en la América mía!
Mientras camino sobre esta cuerda floja
me acecha un tropel de muertos descompuestos
de fosas comunes
de desaparecidos que me espantan
a plena luz del día.
Mi tierra del sur está sangrando
y el corazón se siente fatigado
pero no está vencido todavía
porque esta estrella que en mí explota
esta tarde fría de ceniza
conjura con un grito las manchas de la sangre.
Botero: Una Colombiana! Qué bueno!
Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor of Sojourners magazine (www.sojo.net) in Washington, D.C.