Fernando Botero Angulo is one of
Latin America’s most acclaimed
artists. Born in Medellín, a city
that one Pablo Escobar also called
home, Botero has become known
for his vibrant depictions of life
and the rotund form of his work’s
protagonists. The 83-year-old
painter and sculptor now resides
mostly in New York, but Colombia
has always featured prominently
(almost exclusively, in fact) in his art
and the country clearly remains very
close to his heart.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t until
relatively recently in his career that
he examined the drug wars and
violence so entwined with the past
of his home city. Unfortunately, only
one of these images (and none of
his other expressly political works
looking at abuses in Abu Ghraib) has
made it into a major retrospective
of Botero’s work now on show at the
China Art Museum.
But there is still
plenty to admire at the former Expo
pavilion, with sketches, paintings
and sculptures from across the
Colombian’s long career on display.
And as visitors have flocked to see
his work here in Shanghai, it seems
the admiration is mutual.
Is this your first visit to Shanghai? What do you make of the city?
Yes, it is my first visit to Shanghai, but it is not my
first time in China; in November I was in Beijing for the opening ceremony in
the National Museum of China. I am very impressed. Shanghai is a very big,
elegant, and amazing city. And it is so clean! There's no graffiti! I am
impressed because the economy here is very strong.
I don’t know what made the
biggest impression, but I think it was the China Art Museum. First of all,
because to see my sculptures there at that magnificent square, and to see this
huge red building behind… it was amazing! I don’t have words to express my
admiration: there is such generosity, it is so sublime to see all these
Would you ever consider producing works of art
that portrayed scenes from China or even from Shanghai?
My subject matter is Colombia and it has always
been Colombia; I lived many years in New York, in Paris, and I have never had
the feeling to paint an American or a French subject matter. The thing is that
the art - and the artist - must have roots in his own land, in his own life: my
life is in Colombia, and my land is Colombia.
Now, of course, the language that
you use to express the subject matter must be universal: the composition, the
colour, the balance, etc. In this sense, subject must be local, but the language
must be universal, in order to touch any human being in the world. So,
sincerely I don’t think that I will make paintings with Chinese scenes. But it
doesn’t mean that I don’t have a deep admiration for Chinese art.
How often do you get back to Colombia these
I love my country, and especially my hometown Medellín. I
have a house there, and I try to go at least once a year; I stay there with my
family - almost all my family live in Colombia, so they come to spend some days
with Sophia and me.
I specially miss the food: I
am very fond of Colombian cuisine, things that you cannot find anywhere else in
the world, like the arepas, the chicharrones, etc. There is a famous Colombian
dish that it’s called 'Bandeja paisa', which roughly translates to 'platter
from Medellín': it has rice, meat, arepas, frijoles, even a fried egg on top.
Everything that I love!
You’re from Medellín and the historic drug
violence there has formed the subject of some of your paintings. It’s something
which has reentered popular discourse recently with the Netflix series Narcos. Have you seen the show?
I haven’t seen this last series. I did see Escobar, el Patron del Mal [Escobar, the Boss of Evil, 2012}, a series produced in Colombia that became very popular not
only in our country but also in our continent. It tells the story of Pablo
Escobar from the beginning of his career as a drug dealer until his death in
Medellín in 1993, an event that I decided to portray in a painting in order to
leave a testimony about the time of violence that overcame Colombia during the
'80s and '90s. I found the series very interesting and very accurate
and I have been told that it was made in close collaboration with the most
prominent victims of Escobar, a fact that I think was very intelligent because
it allowed them to approach delicate subjects and to tell them from the point
of view of the victims.
I haven’t seen Narcos
but I found Escobar a very interesting and important production that showed the violence,
corruption and horror drug-dealing brought to my country.
Your paintings of the drug violence marked a
significant shift in the content of your work. What led to this change?
It is true, Colombia has two faces: the face of joy,
happiness, celebration, dancing, music, etc. and the face of violence. At some
point in my life, I had the feeling that I needed to make a testimony of this
second face of Colombia; and I did a complete series that I donated to the
National Museum of Colombia in Bogotá.
You see, I don’t think that the artist
has the obligation to paint this kind of subject matters; but he has the
option. He can use his talent and his conception of reality to make a testimony
of something that cannot be forgotten in order to not repeat it. I made the
series of the Colombian violence, but I also did the Abu Ghraib series. It is a
choice that the artist can do; but it is never an obligation.
What made you want to feature scenes from Abu Ghraib in your work?
The artist is also a human being: he reads the
news and he can react to what he reads. That was my case: I read in the New
York Times what the American soldiers were doing to the Iraqi prisoners; I was
so angry, that I could not stop myself making drawings and sketches and oil
paintings. It was a way to let the anger go. But it was also a testimony that I
wanted to leave. This kind of things cannot happen!
My only aim was to make a testimony. I don’t
think that art can change politics. I always say: the most famous painting of
the 20th century is the Picasso’s 'Gernica', but Franco stayed in the power for more than 20 years
after Picasso made it! You see, it is impossible that a painting, a novel or a
poem changes something; art is supposed to make things stay, not to make them
My aim was, first of all, to express in painting a feeling I had about
what I was seeing in reality; and my second aim was to make a testimony that
artist can do.
Did the more political works from your oeuvre cause
any issues when organising your shows in China?
The exhibitions I made in China display my personal
collection. As I said, the paintings of the violence in Colombia were donated
to de National Museum of Colombia, and the Abu Ghraib series were donated to
the University of Berkeley; so, actually, I don’t possess any of those
paintings. The idea of these exhibitions was to display some of the artworks
that I have in my personal collection. That is the reason.
You’re regularly described as ‘the painter of
fat women’. How do you feel about this tag?
Of course, some people think that I paint fat women. But if
you see, everything I do is volumetric: if I do a landscape, a still life, a
fruit, a bottle, a horse, a tree, everything is volumetric. And it doesn’t have
anything to do with fatness. It has to do with a certain conception of
sensuality in art: I am convinced that painting must be generous, sensual,
voluptuous, and I discovered a way to express this sensuality magnifying forms
and volumes. You see, it is not a comment about fatness or thinness; it is the
reflection of a certain way to conceive beauty in art.
I have always said
that my works are not a commentary about fatness or thinness. I do art in a
certain way because I have very strong convictions about beauty, sensuality,
and I have being doing it in this way for more than 60 years.