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Botero's paintings of Abu Ghraib shunned in US

Written by: Staff
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NEW YORK, Oct 25: Colombian artist Fernando Botero's paintings and sculptures grace museums and public spaces around the world, but he suddenly had trouble exhibiting his work in America when the topic was Abu Ghraib.

A series of paintings depicting US military abuse of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison was rejected by all the US museums to which it was offered before it found a home at the Marlborough Gallery in Midtown Manhattan, where it opened last week and will remain on display until November 18.

''Here there is total freedom of expression. That's why it was so alarming that the museums didn't want to show these works,'' Botero told Reuters in an interview at the gallery on Tuesday, surrounded by paintings of stripped and bound prisoners being abused by guards with dogs.

The paintings are derived from texts describing the events, Botero said, and do not mimic the famous photos.

''I wasn't revealing anything that wasn't already known ....

I was disappointed that this artistic vision was not shown,'' said Botero, 74, whose Jack Nicholson-like hair has turned gray.

''They tell me there have been many angry calls to the gallery,'' Botero said.

Botero said he never bothered to ask which museums turned him down. The institution that attempted to place the work, Art Services International, referred questions to its director, who was unavailable for comment.

Art critic David D'Arcy said museums were hesitant to antagonize the government, especially since the uproar over photographs by the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1980s.

''If it were other works by Botero, they would have been taken right away. He's probably the most recognizable contemporary artist after Christo,'' said D'Arcy, contributing editor for Art + Auction magazine and correspondent for The Art Newspaper.

''The last thing they want is to be stigmatized. There was a time when museums were eager to shock people. I don't think that time is now,'' he said.

Accepted in Europe

Botero's Abu Ghraib exhibition has been seen in three European museums and Botero said he has offers to display it at several others. He said he was so shocked by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal that he departed from his trademark work, which depicts blissfully rotund people in whimsical, non-threatening settings.

''It led me to work 14 months with an obsession,'' he said.

The result was 42 drawings and 38 oil paintings that he began five months after investigative reporter Seymour Hersh unveiled the abuse in The New Yorker magazine in May 2004.

Botero fans may be shocked to see a gallery of his work portraying violence, sexual abuse and torture in the same style, composition and colors that have made his work so popular with the public, if not always with the most exacting art critics.

Botero called the Abu Ghraib project an ''aside'' and that he has since returned to painting his jolly, oversized crowd-pleasers.

''They are never fat. They are volumetric,'' Botero said, correcting what he considered a reporter's oversimplification of his characters.

He hopes the exhibit will find a home in a US or European museum, but it is not for sale. It will be donated, he said.

''I don't believe in making money off human suffering.''

REUTERS

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