Chile Culture Essay — 16 May 2012


George Allen


Santiago’s Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos is a block long rectangular concrete and glass building outside of the sprawling Quinto Normal Park. The front entrance of the museum is dedicated to 20th and 21st century human rights abuses. Brief summaries of  various truth commission investigations into human rights abuses span the wall of the front entrance. The summaries are medieval in their terror: 30,000 disappeared in Argentina; 13,000 deaths in El Salvador; 70,000 in Peru; Apartheid in South Africa; and the Balkan Wars just to name a few. The commissions testify to an unsettling truth: that ethnic violence, military dictatorships, torture, and imperialism were widespread during the 20th century.

As one would expect given its location, most of the museum is dedicated to Chile’s history of human rights violations. Through video, news clippings, and testimonials, the second and third floors tell the story of the tumultuous period leading up to the coup in 1973 and the dark years that followed. For those who don’t know, Salvador Allende won the 1970 election by a narrow margin, and proceeded to implement economic changes such as nationalizing copper and banks and land reform.  Allende’s reforms and Marxist ties were unpopular particularly in Washington, where President Nixon reportedly called him a “son of a bitch.” Without a majority in the congress, Allende lost control of the economy in 1973 after a series of strikes–encouraged by Kissinger and the CIA–and then lost the support of the military. Led by Army General Augusto Pinochet, Chilean troops launched a coup bombing the capital building, capturing prominent Allende-friendly politicians, and taking full control of the country with in a week.

Pinochet proceeded to establish a brutal dictatorship and reign of terror, killing thousands of Chileans and foreign leftists in the first months. Walking through the museum, one cannot help be reminded of the horrors committed by so many other Latin American despots and the complicit role played by the United States in creating, supporting, or ignoring them.

As Greg Grandin argues in his recent book, “Empire’s Workshop” there are intimate links between US foreign policy tactics in Latin America and those now in use in many countries in the Middle East. According to Grandin, the supposed innovation of the Bush administration to view the world as “a crisis-ridden world that justifies the use of unilateral and brutal American military power nor their utopian vision of the same world made whole and happy by that power is new. Both have been fully in operation in Washington’s approach to Latin America for over a century. The history of the US in Latin America is cluttered with ‘preemptive’ interventions that even the most stalwart champions of US hegemony have trouble defending”.

As if attempting to highlight this connection, a selection of Francisco Botero’s “Abu Ghraib” paintings and drawings are on display at the Museum this fall. As the name suggests, Botero’s exposition depicts the torture of Iraqis that occurred at US-run Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib in 2003-04. The exhibit indignantly echoes the particular and the universal of human rights abuses, and calls for profound reflection about what it means to make another human suffer. Further, seen at a museum dedicated to remembering the staging ground for one of Latin America’s most brutal dictators, Botero’s exhibit also emphasizes the relation between current and former US foreign policy abroad.

Best known for his almost comically voluptuous statues like “Caballo” in Santiago’s Parque Forestal, Botero’s “Abu Ghraib” paintings were a departure from the Colombian-born artist’s typical artistic endeavors. Botero’s artwork often evokes social themes, but few are as direct as the “Abu Ghraib” exposition, which he says he started drawing on an airplane after he learned–along with the rest of the world–what was occurring in Iraq. Botero writes, “I like everyone else, was shocked by the barbarity, especially because the US is supposed to be the model of compassion…These works are the result of the indignation that the violations in Iraq produced in me and the rest of the world.”

Though Botero claims not to have based his portraits on the infamous photographs of Lynndie England and Charles Graner, the paintings echo the horror of those particular photos. In his characteristic gigantism style, Botero depicts figures strung up in cells by their wrists wearing women’s underwear, sodomized by broom sticks, bitten by dogs, and urinated on by prison guards.

Botero’s tortured figures dominate, and nearly overflow their boundaries. In the largest colored portraits, levianathic men writhe in transfixed agony at the hands of teal-gloved disembodied torturers. The upturned faces of torment painted in Medieval-style color evoke Christ-like suffering. On first glance the Christian imagery appears to frame the torture and suffering of Iraqi prisoners too comfortably. Doesn’t it seem insulting to view the Abu Ghraib human rights violations through the lens of the dominant ideology of the torturers?

Yet, at the same time the familiar imagery invites the viewer to identify with the suffering of the individual in Christian terms, it points to the hypocrisy of religious rhetoric that pervaded the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Looking at these portraits it’s hard not to think of militant American ideologues evoking the Christian moral high-ground as the justification for the invasion, occupation, and torture of Iraqi civilians.

The heaviness in “Abu Ghraib” also encourages the viewer to reflect beyond the singularity of these human rights offenses to the universality of man’s tendency to harm his fellow man. Botero’s immense, fleshy figures are almost too large for the canvas, emphasizing the enormity of the violation, and highlighting the physicality involved in the act of torture.

This heaviness, though verging on the extreme, also lends dignity to these characters. It emphasizes gravity–not just moral gravity–but the physical force common to all humanity. In this way, Botero’s portraits change Iraqi prisoners from individual cases into the “everyman” of human suffering. Viewed in light of the initial US government explanation of Abu Ghraib–essentially the “just a few bad eggs” theory–Botero’s “everyman” symbolizes the counter-narrative. As we now know, it was not “just a few bad eggs” that perpetrated the human rights abuses in Abu Ghraib, but a system and a culture that encouraged such acts, beginning at the very top of the hierarchy. These portraits connect Abu Ghraib to the painfully long history of human on human violence reminding us of the part we all play in this history. They make us ask, how did I react when I heard about Abu Ghraib? What did I do? How should I have reacted?

It’s unlikely that those truly responsible for ordering torture–Bush and his cabinet–will ever be brought to justice, but these portraits make us look beyond Bush to our own role in the incident. Would it be enough to bring the Bush cabinet to justice? It’s certainly an important step, but it can’t be enough. Botero’s “Abu Ghraib” seeks to expand the circle of complicity, of guilt, and ultimately of reflection. This is both the strength and the weakness of the exhibit. Reflection and admitting mistakes are vital, but perhaps “reflection” has been tainted in the USA. After admonishing me for apologizing too profusely, a friend pointed out that Americans are constantly apologizing for things. “Sorry to bother you”, “Sorry I can’t make it”, etc, are so common they’ve been emptied of all meaning. Of course these can be sincere expressions of regret, but we might do well to question what it means to really apologize. In other words to reflect upon the act of reflecting.

There is always a danger of insincere reflection. Movies “based on real life” make us feel we understand the real event; we see documentaries or investigative reports about repressed people and feel we understand them. The refrain, “your enemy is only someone whose story you haven’t heard” sets a dangerous precedent, and goes unchallenged too often. Who tells the story is just as important as the story that gets told.

Though obviously well-intentioned, the danger of Botero’s exhibit is that it allows us to reflect from our secure towers of educated, liberal, democratic citizenship–instead of challenging our pre-conceived notions about what we should feel about Abu Ghraib, it risks reinforcing them. Perhaps there’s no way out of this circle of deceptive self-reflection, but looking at Botero’s gigantic portraits I found myself thinking about the first pictures I’d seen from Abu Ghraib. The picture of Lynndie England smoking a cigarette while holding a naked prisoner on a leash; England and Graner throwing up a peace sign behind a pyramid of naked prisoners; or the hooded prisoner atop a wooden crate attached to electrical wires. Those pictures were so jarring because they felt revelatory, like a phantom of the unconscious, frightening but true. As I left the exhibit I found myself thinking that we should still be talking about those terrifying photos, not an artistic interpretation. Though no fault of his own, Botero’s portraits pale in comparison. Art, in this case, is no substitute for the real.


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(2) Readers Comments

  1. Thought-provoking…

  2. here you go

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