In late 2003, Iraqi prisoners of war were tortured by U.S. soldiers in Tier 1A at Abu Ghraib, near Baghdad. At times beaten with broomsticks, at other times thrown wet and naked into freezing cells or coerced into performing humiliating acts, the prisoners were subjected to gruesome experiences by soldiers who captured these events on video. Prisoners were also forced to listen to loud repetitions of Psalm 137, in Boney M’s bouncy cover of the Jamaican reggae band The Melodians’ song, Rivers of Babylon.
The Colombian artist Fernando Botero, like many artists at the time of the Abu Ghraib scandal, responded to these images of abuse by making his own images—to recast the prisoners in a different light. For Botero, who created around fifty paintings in this series (Ebony 2006: 10), these images represented a visual cry against the cruelty of humanity. Borrowing from medieval Christian iconography, Botero re-presents Muslim prisoners in the figure of Christ and of the martyred saints.
This photo shows three of these paintings as displayed in the Parque Fundidora in Monterrey City, Mexico, in 2008. In each, a solitary male figure is represented, bound and hooded, in the process of being tortured. Unlike the majority of the paintings in this series, which were displayed as part of museum surveys of Botero’s work in Italy and Germany in late 2005 and early 2006, these figures’ faces remain unseen. Bound as prisoners, their bodies reveal signs of torture in their bloodied knees, shoulders, and backs while the instruments of torture are largely invisible, outside the frame.
Red hoods cover their heads, either partially or completely. Feet bound together, arms tied behind their backs with ropes, these nameless men have been stripped, rendering them further ‘undignified’ within the grids of their prison spaces.
The prisoners’ darkened cells are surrounded by other, more illuminated blocks beyond their own which further contributes to the sense of their being hemmed in.
These distant lights however may also suggest the possibility of hope—of conceivable escape from the pain in this presumed pause before the torture resumes.
Ebony, David. 2006. Botero Abu Ghraib (New York: Prestel)
Runions, Erin. 2014. The Babylon Complex (New York: Fordham University Press), pp. 148–78
137By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
2On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
3For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
7Remember, O Lord, against the Eʹdomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Raze it, raze it!
Down to its foundations!”
8O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall he be who requites you
with what you have done to us!
9Happy shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!