Two Sistine chapels... and Botero's Abu Ghraib

Standing out among the treasures I preserve from childhood days is the memory of a series of unhindered visits I was able to make to the Sistine chapel of Paleolithic Art: the Altamira Cave . That was years before it was closed to the public; now limiting entry to 160 special visitors weekly, mostly educators and scientists.

It was not the paintings of bison, wild boars or horses that drew my attention after the first visit… or the size of the stalactites and stalagmites in the cave’s main hall. No; it was the engraved anthropomorphic figures showing humans with animal heads and other signs and symbols that were difficult or impossible to explain. But then again, I was just eleven or twelve, rubbing artistic elbows with prehistoric men of 15,000 years before in a cave-cathedral displaying the relics, the genesis of art and story-telling.

The undecipherable symbolism of fifteen millennia before had more than art to display; at the very least, one is left to wander into possibilities of vivid rainbow-colored stories painted, communicated to us in just three shades: black, ochre and red.

It was years later that I came to visit “the other” Sistine chapel, not in a cave, but a place resplendent in color and light, the Vatican Palace . But the symbolism found in the art of Altamira ’s primitive men, was also evidenced here, coming to life before me across the ceiling of the chapel as the nine episodes from the biblical Genesis were narrated in eloquent brushstrokes by the genius in Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fortunately, it was much clearer this time… a simpler form of interpretation; nothing so primeval, so occult as had been in Altamira.

Now, this mid-April, art made its way back in my life with painting speaking its piece of socio-political commentary, chronicling once again man’s inhumanity towards man. Fernando Botero, the famed artist from Colombia , well-known for his depictions of chubby people and a Goya-like accent to his paintings, told the world of his recent series of 50 oils and sketches, all under one title: Abu Ghraib. This title, along with 120 of his other works, will be exhibited next June 16 in Rome.

That exhibit, according to Botero, is scheduled for a US tour in 2006… sans the 50 paintings, unless American museums ask for them. Given the political climate in these United States , one would have to bet against that.

Botero is not a US-hater… far from it. Yet, in a recent interview he made it quite clear how shocked he was by the barbarity perpetrated in Iraq , especially one coming from a nation that is supposed to be a model of compassion. It was that abuse at Iraq ’s Abu Ghraib prison which compelled him to create this 50-snap horror story in order to emblazon important images upon the consciousness of the world.

Like Picasso and his “ Guernica ” masterpiece showing the atrocities of the Luftwaffe on poor defenseless civilians in this Basque village- cradle of a unique and brave people, Botero’s “Abu Ghraib” will have a story to tell… a story that will reach beyond the sadistic prison guards at Abu Ghraib. “Guernica,” the painting, will always be about Franco, and not the Luftwaffe (or its Condor Legion)… and “Abu Ghraib,” the numbered 1-50 paintings, will always be about Bush, and not the proverbial “few bad apples” serving as scapegoats.

At the tail end of Botero’s announcement two weeks ago, a pronouncement was made by the Bush administration on Abu Ghraib after what was claimed to be a thorough investigation: the Abu Ghraib fiasco was judged to be nothing but the makings of a few lowlifes, totally unrepresentative of what America, its sacrosanct elected leadership and its glorious military are all about. Bush, Rumsfeld, generals Myers, Abizaid and Sanchez… and all the hierarchical androids down the line of command were found to be virgins wrapped not in white tunics but, what’s even better, in red, white and blue flags.

It was a clear message from the New America to the world. America ’s coin of the realm says it all: on one side the face of arrogance profiled by Bush, Imperator Dei Gratia, holder of all truth and wisdom; while the other side displays a rampant bald eagle over a blindfolded lady justice, confirming that America ’s decisions are final, without appeal.

But there is, however, a court of human decency and morality to which even Americans are bound; one not influenced by mountain-high military power, or the insidiousness of the intelligent criminal mind.

Most Americans have been, are, and likely will continue to be apologists for the war in Iraq , and any criminality associated with it. Since hell is likely to freeze over before America’s leaders will offer a mea culpa for initiating this illegitimate war, the horror of this historical moment can best be chronicled by the brushstrokes of a Botero and, just like prehistoric men fifteen millennia before, tapping only the shades of black (or charcoal), ochre and red.

We have come full circle since primeval men roamed the Cantabrian Mountains of a pre-dawn Iberia … yet civilization often appears to have stood still, mankind confined to the darkness of a cave, taking refuge from a never-ending Ice Age.

Let’s be thankful for art, and the brushstrokes of the masters… Botero among them.