Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How Can We Make Art From the Suffering of Others?/ Fernando Botero: The Abu Ghraib Series at the Berkeley Art Museum

Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib 66, 2005;
oil on canvas; 13 x 12 5/8 in.; gift of the artist.
Photo: Sibila Savage.

The ongoing challenge for artists who engage with contemporary politics has to do with representation. How is it possible to represent the horrors of war without glamorizing it? How can artists employ images of suffering in artworks without becoming complicit in the circumstances of their initial production? With the so-called "War on Terror", this question becomes pointed since that enterprise has depended so heavily on objectifying Arab and Muslim bodies through photography. From the perpetual surveillance of ordinary Arab and Muslim Americans to footage of the formerly dapper (if tyrannical) Saddam Hussein looking crazy/ homeless après-spider hole, successes in the War on Terror have been measured through the careful construction of images that support the "Crusader" narrative reactivated and deployed with such force by the Bush Administration. Of course, the ultimate expression of the violence of objectification (and the objectification of violence) in the "War on Terror" are the Abu Ghraib photos. Carefully posed and snapped by US military personnel at the prison, these pictures functioned both as ritualized humiliation and its memorial. This dynamic recalls the early uses of photography to categorize black bodies post-slavery and as a central part of the practice of lynching. In her excellent book Scenes of Subjection, Saidya Hartman argues against the reproduction of such images, asking, "What does the exposure of the violated body yield?... Are we witnesses or are we voyeurs?" She writes,

"I have chosen not to reproduce (these images) in order to call attention to the ease with which such scenes are usually reiterated, the casualness with which they are circulated, and the consequences of this routine display of the slave’s ravaged body. Rather than inciting indignation, too often they immure us to pain by virtue of their familiarity—the oft-repeated or restored character of these accounts and our distance from them are signaled by the theatrical language usually resorted to in describing these instances—and especially because they reinforce the spectacular character of black suffering. (Hartman, 3)

Hartman's point, that the reproduction of images of black suffering participates in the economy that supported slavery in the first place, is a good one. But beyond merely reproducing images of suffering bodies generated by post-slavery racism or the Jewish Holocaust is the use of such images in artworks designed to critique those institutions and practices. When it comes to the Abu Ghraib photos news organizations struggled with how to reproduce them and most settled on blurring out the faces and genitals of the Arab and Muslim prisoners whose naked, tormented bodies are on display in them. Many artists too, hesitated, perhaps overwhelmed by the casual horror of the Abu Ghraib images. But not Fernando Botero, the Spanish artist whose trademark fat, cartoon like figures have been reproduced in dorm room prints and posters for years, immediately began to create work based on these images. A show of this work is opening today at the Berkeley Art Museum. Below is Curator Lucinda Barnes' description of the show.

by Lucinda Barnes,
Chief Curator and Director of Programs and Collections at BAM/PFA

"Although the U.S. military ceased its operations at Baghdad’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison several years ago, the 2004 revelations of prisoner abuses there sparked debates—about torture, military ethics, and the role of the United States as a world power—that are far from over. Internationally acclaimed artist Fernando Botero (b. 1932) offers a powerful vision of the atrocities of Abu Ghraib in a series of fifty-six paintings and drawings, which has now returned to Berkeley as an extraordinary gift from the artist to the permanent collection of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Thousands of Bay Area visitors first saw this group of works in early 2007, in an exhibition at UC Berkeley’s Doe Library organized by the Center for Latin American Studies, one of the first presentations of the series in North America. The Colombian-born artist has made this magnanimous gift in response to the enthusiastic interest in the series from the Berkeley community and in recognition of Berkeley’s historic role in the arena of free speech.

In May 2004, The New Yorker published one of the first accounts of abuses at Abu Ghraib, written by Seymour Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist who first came to renown for exposing the My Lai Massacre in 1969. Hersh’s article, “Torture at Abu Ghraib,” was a horrific account, drawing heavily upon a fifty-three-page report by Major General Antonio M. Taguba detailing what the general described as “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” at the prison. Hersh enumerated many of the sickening abuses and humiliations detailed in the Taguba report, and also described the now famous photographs that had been released just the week before on 60 Minutes II.

Fernando Botero read Hersh’s article while on a flight to Paris, where he lives and works. Even before the plane landed, Botero began sketching the horrific scenes that he imagined based on what Hersh had written. Back in his studio, Botero continued drawing and painting in an intense torrent of work that continued for fourteen months. Botero numbered the works in sequence as he made them, “Abu Ghraib – 1” and so on, as if creating a chronicle of his own response. In an interview with UC Berkeley professor and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, Botero remarked, “What I wanted was to visualize the atmosphere described in the articles, to make visible what was invisible.” During his 2007 visit to the Berkeley campus, Botero told San Francisco Chronicle critic Kenneth Baker that his Abu Ghraib paintings were works “of imagination and not documentary.”

Fernando Botero’s early interest in art was sparked by an exhibition of works by the famed Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Siqueiros; noting that “they made the reality of the country the subject of their art,” Botero saw in their paintings a “direct way of speaking.” As a young artist, Botero traveled to Europe to study the masters in Spain and Italy. Based in New York in the 1960s, later settling in Paris, Botero became known for lively compositions of volumetric, sensual figures. Yet his works also have often criticized military juntas and dictators as part of Latin American history and culture, as well as the violence and drug wars in Colombia. These works clearly show the influence of the Spanish master Francisco Goya, who mocked the royals and the Church of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Spain, and whose famous series Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) responded with outrage to the brutality of the Napoleonic invasions, through which the artist himself lived.

Fernando Botero: The Abu Ghraib Series celebrates the artist’s gift to BAM and to our community, and honors the return of these provocative works to Berkeley. The occasion has also sparked the concurrent exhibition Material Witness, which brings together works of art from the BAM collection that, like Botero’s work, offer distinctive, critical views of current affairs and cultural memory."

Where: Berkeley Art Museum
When: opens September 23rd
Address: 2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, California, 94720
Phone: (510) 642-0808
Website: Official Website
Hours: Wednesday – Sunday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Closed: Monday, Tuesday

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