Making Abu Ghraib Visible
Charles R. Larson is professor of literature at American University, the location of the Abu Ghraib exhibit.
There's been an incredible coincidence in Washington this past week. The Senate confirmed Michael Mukasey, President Bush's nomination for the next attorney general of the United States. Two days earlier, the first-ever exhibit of the complete series of Fernando Botero's shocking "Abu Ghraib" paintings opened at the Katzen Arts Center at American University, a few miles away from the chambers of the United States Senate. Washington is known for its strange bedfellows, but I doubt that a stranger juxtaposition has ever occurred.
All of Botero's paintings in this series depict the horrors of the torturing of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib, the notorious prison near Baghdad—including one that shows the infamous waterboarding procedure that the Bush administration appears to be unwilling to stop.
During Mukasey's hearings before the Senate, the candidate for the nation's top legal position responded to questions about waterboarding by saying that he wasn't certain whether the method should be considered illegal or not. (His predecessor at the Department of Justice, Alberto Gonzalez, had few qualms about torture or human rights and lost his job, some would say, because he lost his humanity.)
Fortunately, for most Americans (and clearly most people around the world), the torture at Abu Ghraib in 2003 marked the precise moment when the United States lost its moral authority. All credibility regarding the invasion of Iraq vanished.
Fernando Botero's iconic style, depicting marginalized, desensitized people often considered as disposable, has never been so successfully employed. In the Colombian artist's signature style, the figures in the 79 paintings and sketches border on obese, but they do not appear overfed as much as bloated—full of water and about to burst, as if so much water has been forced down their throats that they have already drowned.
The paintings, many in full color, replicate the images we are familiar with from the day they appeared in the media in 2003. Men—mostly naked—forced to wear panties and women's bras; men piled up on top of one another; others hanging from ropes disappearing off the edge of the canvas; others being forced into degrading sexual acts (sodomized with sticks). Splotches of blood where they have been beaten disturbingly suggest the stigmata in Renaissance paintings.
Even more menacing are the gigantic attack dogs in many of the paintings, teeth bared and bloody, not quite resembling any canine one has ever seen, but closer to creatures in nightmares. In several of the most disturbing paintings, the victims are chained to a wall or constrained by ropes around their feet and hands, rendering the victims virtually lifeless on the floor of caged cells. And always the horror, the horror on the victims' faces-America's heart of darkness.
Botero clearly understands how to get to the viewer's jugular and it's not always by including images of the American soldiers who did the torturing. Yes, the soldiers are in some of the paintings and sketches, but the worst images are often incomplete. Iraqis are being urinated on by the soldiers—the stream of urine coming from the edge of the painting, from offstage, almost in the tradition of Greek tragedy, where the bloodiest acts occur off stage.
In several of the harshest images, all that the viewer can observe of the soldier who is administering the torture, is an oversized boot and part of a huge leg kicking or pressing on a victim-but no torso of the actual soldier. The elevated boot and leg recall images of Nazi soldiers goose-stepping, and make one think of German scientists performing their perverse experiments on Jews during World War II. ("I only did what I was told to do.")
Would the vote in the United States Senate have gone against Mukasey if the Senators had been invited to the opening of the Botero exhibit at American University? Should the exhibit have been dedicated to Donald Rumsfeld? Should Laura Bush—who has recently spoken out about the abuses of the Myanmar government—be invited to the exhibit for a private showing?
Fernando Botero depicts the moral rot inflicting our contemporary world, with the United States at the apex. Those huge Gestapo boots and heavy streams of urine jolt the viewer into realizing that the abuse of power is often invisible, conducted surreptitiously—what governments do behind the scenes when all accountability has been lost, when credibility has been kicked aside.