Débora Arango

Museo de América

In 1955, an exhibition by the Colombian artist Débora Arango was censored in Madrid. Under pressure from the Colombian right, an ostensibly devout, Franco-ruled Spain turned its back on her bold and irreverent paintings. Now, half a century later, a much-changed Spanish capital has opened its doors to her. Despite the cultural bonds between Spain and Latin America, Latin American art is still largely unknown here. Consequently, this show—albeit of work by a ninety-seven-year-old artist—was a major revelation.

Given the ultra-Catholic mentality and provincial culture of the Colombia of Arango’s youth, the expressionist streak in her work, especially in the nudes painted from 1939 to 1944, is surprising. One may think of Otto Dix, but he wasn’t a direct influence; Débora—she signed her work with her given name alone—was a true original. Her nudes portray women of the underclass, like the astonishing Madona del silencio o Maternidad en la cárcel (Madonna of Silence, or Maternity in Prison), ca. 1944, which depicts a women with her legs apart, giving birth to a child with a deformed head. The floozies and whores that Arango depicts provoked antipathy from the most conservative sectors of Colombian society.

But it’s not just her subject matter that commands our interest. Débora’s watercolors and oil paintings are wonderfully lively and inventive, as are her murals, inspired by a visit to Mexico in 1946—especially when compared to the stale academicism then prevalent in Colombia, where modernism at most meant a certain Impressionist influence that arrived only in the ’30s. Unlike Cuba, Argentina, or Mexico, Colombia hadn’t experienced avant-garde movements. There was neither an economic base provided by a thriving bourgeoisie nor a large modern metropolis. Indeed, by the early ’50s when a major city did emerge in Colombia, the character of Arango’s art had already been firmly established. A trip to England, France, and Austria in 1959 might have provided new artistic influences but didn’t, probably because, after receiving so much scorn from the dominant and extremely sexist Colombian cultural scene, the artist was already thinking of retiring. In the early ’60s, she did in fact retire to a town near Medellín, where she still resides.

A third characteristic that makes Arango’s work particularly valuable is her use of satire in depicting the political class. In pieces such as Rojas Pinilla, n.d., and Salida de Laureano (Laureano’s Exit), ca. 1957, which portray the general behind the coup d’état of 1953 and the pro-Fascist politician whom he overthrew, she paints demagogues with bodies of frogs and reptiles. Her familiarity with the work of the great Mexican graphic artist José Guadalupe Posada probably had an influence on her approach to certain pieces.

This exhibition provided a welcome overview of a multifaceted artist. Her skillful watercolors pick through daily life and come up with an ethical, protofeminist viewpoint that registers the pain and hardship of the people; at the same time, her work avoids idealizations and doctrinaire political platforms. It’s unfortunate that the installation was so staid and that the dim lighting hindered an appreciation of the bold tones that distinguish much of her best work.

Juan Vicente Aliaga

Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.

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