Colombia's latest weapon: art

Fernando Botero, famous for the chubby figures of his paintings, stands up to the violence devastating his homeland.

At a moment when many Colombians are losing faith in their country's floundering peace process, artist Fernando Botero is taking a monumental stand against the violence.

Colombia's best-known artist has donated paintings and sculptures worth some $120 million toward what he calls the "moral renovation" of Medellin - Mr. Botero's home town, and one of the most violent cities in the Americas.

"It was a way to help Colombia and to change the face of Medellin. We wanted to show that it's not just the city of the cartels, assassins, death, and crime," says the artist who is famed for the corpulent figures of his paintings and sculptures.

Medellin became a synonym for drug-fueled violence in the 1980s, as Mafia boss Pablo Escobar unleashed his war against the Colombian state. Mr. Escobar was shot dead in 1993, and the largest drug cartels have been dismantled. But the violence continues unabated.

Last year, some 4,000 people were killed in this city of 2 million, most of them victims of a brutal turf war involving street gangs, leftist militias, and paramilitary death squads. Meanwhile, Medellin's economy - once the powerhouse of Colombian industry - has collapsed, pushing unemployment past 20 percent.

Botero's donation has jump-started an ambitious plan to breathe new life into the shabby downtown. The artist gave more than 100 canvasses and sculptures from his personal collection, including works and paintings by Picasso, Renoir, and Dali, to museums in Medellin and Bogota.

Medellin's art-deco city hall has been restored to splendor as a public gallery to house the city's collection. The street outside was once a notorious red-light district, but now passersby gaze up at Botero's rotund sculptures on permanent display in a new park.

But the project is more than a facelift for a dilapidated corner of the city, says museum director Pilar Velilla

"We aren't just opening a museum, we're proposing a change of attitudes," she says.

According to Ms. Velilla, the museum, which includes an exhibition of three centuries of Colombian art, offers the people of Medellin a chance to see beyond the seemingly endless cycle of violence that surrounds them.

"This is a place where Colombian people can meet themselves. When a child sees that his people have a history, he gains a sense of his own worth and dignity," she adds.

Until recently, Botero's dreamscapes made no reference to Colombia's endemic violence. But last year, the painter sparked controversy when he unveiled a series of canvasses depicting the turmoil of crime and war.

One picture showed Mafia boss Escobar pinwheeling to his death in a hail of police bullets. In another portrait, rebel commander Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda stands calmly in a jungle clearing, carrying a strangely harmless-looking machine gun. Other paintings in the series include depictions of a car-bomb attack, a group of guerrillas in a forest, and a bar massacre.

Explaining why he broke his own rules, Botero says, "Art should be an oasis, a place or refuge from the hardness of life. But the Colombian drama is so out of proportion that today you can't ignore the violence, the thousands displaced and dead, the processions of coffins. Against all my principles, I had to paint [the violence]."

Like Colombia's other artistic giant, Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Botero's art is steeped in his native culture even though he has lived abroad for many years. The canvasses are peppered with references to the landmarks and customs of Medellin, although Botero has split his time between Italy and New York for the past 48 years.

"In a way, Botero has never left," says Velilla. However, after a failed kidnapping attempt in 1994, the painter has restricted his visits to Medellin.

"After that, I couldn't come to Colombia so often, because I was a real danger, but it makes me very sad. It's very hard when you can't visit your own land," Botero says.

Over the past 10 years, Colombia's civil war has forced over 1 million people from their homes, and tens of thousands have fled abroad.

The artist's work became the focus of violence in June 1995, when a bomb attack in Medellin tore apart a Botero statue of a dove, killing 25 people and injuring more than 200. Police suspected that urban guerrillas were responsible for the explosion, but the perpetrators were never caught. After the bombing, Botero insisted that the statue be left on display as a "monument to stupidity." A new dove was cast, and mounted alongside as a monument to peace.

In 1998, President Andres Pastrana launched peace talks with the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but Mr.Marulanda's rebels have refused to sign a cease-fire, and many Colombians are losing patience with the process.

"The situation in Colombia couldn't be worse. But we have to have faith," says Botero. "It's our only option."

"This [museum] is the seed for a new way of thinking," he continues. "Any change must be based on education, culture, and employment. These are the only things which can bring peace to this country."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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