Interview: Fernando Botero

The famed Colombian artist on politics, art and Pablo Escobar

Fernando Botero in China
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 characters.
botero in china

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 days?
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 change.

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.

botero flowers

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.