Torture Paintings

By Guest Columnist May 29, 2009

Elsadig Elsheikh To see more of Botero’s work, click here. Fernando Botero is a Colombian painter and sculptor best known for his robust, puffed up forms and exaggerated human and animal figures. As one of the most recognized artists in the world, Botero, who is now 77-years-old, is also considered to be the most “Beloved Artist of the Americas.” Born in Medellin, Colombia, Botero is probably best known his works like the Massacre in Colombia, which documented a terrible period of violence in Colombia La Violencia . The capricious, full-bodied figures that Botero uses allows him to add more delight in peoples’ enjoyment for his work. However, in 2004-2005, the artist painted something that was inspired by the heartless acts that took place at ‘the house at the end’ 20 miles outside the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. “The house at the end” was the Iraqi people’s nickname for the Abu Ghraib prison during Saddam Hussein’s regime, because they knew that whoever entered that prison would most likely vanish. Saddam Hussein’s regime used the Abu Ghraib prison to wipe out his political opponents. Subsequently, after the U.S.-led invasion and consequent occupation of Iraq, ‘the house at the end’ became a symbol of the annihilation of human dignity of alleged Iraqi insurgents by U.S. soldiers. “I was angry, very angry, when I first read about Abu Ghraib in the New Yorker magazine,” Botero said when asked how he came to take on such a controversial work. And for 14 months in his studio in Paris, Botero worked only on this series of paintings and sketches. “I was shocked to learn of the crimes committed on behalf of a country that presents itself as a model of compassion, justice and civilization," Botero told an audience at Berkeley University in 2007. “I needed to say something about it.” None of Botero’s work about Abu Ghraib is for sale; Botero has said he has no interest in profiting from these pieces. He has offered the paintings as a permanent collection to a number of American museums, but none have been willing to accept them. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, “Experts estimate the gift to be worth between $10 million and $15 million;” however, the Marlborough Gallery in New York City, the University of California-Berkeley and the American University in Washington D.C. have exhibited Botero’s uncompromised and graphic images of atrocious torture of the Iraqi detainees. Why are none of the American museums interested in the work of one of the most well-known sculptors? Is that because this art mirrors our inept reaction as a country toward the pain of “others”? The torture that took place in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military installation in Bagram, Afghanistan and the CIA “black site” prisons around the world shamed and humiliated the U.S. reputation around the globe; however, it does not seem to be having the same impact at home. Torturing alleged terrorists or military combatants is morally and legally wrong, and cannot be justified under any circumstances. Philip Zelikow, who served as an aide to Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state, told a U.S. Senate hearing on torture practices that "The U.S. government over the past seven years adopted an unprecedented programme in American history of cruelly calculated dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information." Senator Mark Dayton told the Armed Services Committee on May 18, 2004 that “We have now had 15 of the highest-level officials involved in this entire operation [torture in Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo and other CIA secret prisons], from the secretary of defense to the generals in command…We have a general acceptance of responsibility, but there’s no one to blame, except for the people at the very bottom of one prison.” President Obama’s decision to declassify and release torture memos written by high-ranked legal advisors in the Bush administration is a much-needed step forward. However, unfolding the whole unpleasant truth (photos, memos) and prosecuting all those who were behind such inhumane acts conceivably could restore the U.S. government’s respect for humane treatment of war prisoners and its Constitution. Botero’s works about Abu Ghraib should be displayed permanently in the U.S. to remind us not only of the artist who stood protesting the crimes committed on behalf of a country, but also and more importantly to create empathy with the rest of the world. These paintings call on our responsibility as citizens. We should not look the other way when dehumanization occurs—even to our suspected enemies. Elsadig Elsheikh is a research associate at the Kirwan Institute.