Fernando and Pablo, Medellin royalty

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Today, I’m rolling with the preeminent artist of the area and one of his best recognized subjects. Though I’m a big fan of Uribe, former president of Colombia, and he is indeed vitally involved in the history of Medellin and surrounding Antioquia, he will find a place in a different post. One where proper attention can be paid to the leader of Colombia’s optimistic present.

My first outing in Medellin was to the Museo de Antioquia, to see the rooms filled with Botero. The friendly Yuber drove our taxi, and we initially arrived at the wrong place. Thank technology for Google Images, or I would have entered whatever dirty building we pulled up to, convincing myself not to judge a book by its cover. I showed Yuber the direccion on the iPhone notes, and we were off to the real location.

Into the throbbing city center we went. Racks of clothes and stacks of avocados and spaghetti-strapped muchachas flaunting tanned midrifts while lonely men looked on, smoking pipes, hawking car chargers. I’m sure it exists, but I haven’t seen that kind of street hubbub in Bogota; Medellin has a pumping pulse, a gritty energy. That great dirty mass of a real city.

Yuber finally hustled his way through the pedestrian throng and parked us next to a lovely building, but one that looked not at all like my trusty Google Image. He directed me to the plaza, just over there, and Senora: tiene usted una camera? No fotos aqui, okay?

I could see what he meant. Lots of people, lots of foot traffic, plenty of vagabond characters. We popped up the stroller and went forth, relieved Yuber was happy to wait with his cab until we were set to leave. After three confused conversations and misfires, I managed to put myself in the right office and actually purchase a ticket. Up to the third floor:

Botero.

I’ll be honest. When I first saw pictures of his sculptures – my Argentine husband introduced me – I thought: so many fat people… Why? It’s not an artistic thought, but I suppose many Botero newbies might wonder the same.

But the more I see, the more I love, and that’s part of Botero’s aesthetic. I read on my way into the exhibit that he’s not painting fat people; not really. Botero is interested in the monumental presence: voluminous, voluptuous, sensual. And what’s true, from my gallery walk, is that once you adjust to his proportions, his subjects don’t look obese at all. They look beautiful and just largely present.

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This is Eve. She’s facing Adam. Outside, in the lower right window frame, you can see the pair of them in the plaza, a version capable of withstanding the abuse of rain and pigeon droppings. At any rate, she’s a beauty. Monumental indeed.

One of the paintings I found most fascinating is the one heading this post. That’s because, criminal asshole or not, Pablo Escobar captivates. What can I say? He showed up for a hot minute in Blow, and that’s about all I remember of the whole movie. My husband is not much of a reader (to put it nicely) and he read Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw in two days. Pablo Escobar: El Patron del Mal is a hugely successful telenovela devoted to the title criminal. When you say Medellin in Colombia, everyone thinks Escobar. The lower-class boy who grew up to rule the cocaine trade, who spent a lifetime perfecting lawbreaking, is synonymous with his native city.

Our taxi driver on night one told us how the locals – particularly the poor – adore him. And he did build hospitals, schools. He built futbol fields and kept it real, you might say, around his hometown people. Escobar also paid $1000 to anyone who killed a police officer. His drug – cocaine –  decimated countless addicts’ lives, and it made him a billionaire.

Maybe it’s because Pablo was larger than life. Transporting 15 tons of cocaine a day: who could imagine it, who could pull off that kind of undertaking? And so it makes sense then, that Escobar be depicted in Botero’s signature form: huge. Above Medellin, filling the whole city, a ubiquitous presence. The kingpin.

But he also looks likely to crush the building on which he rests. And the violence Escobar brought: there is no escaping that. However cheeky and charming Escobar might be – building his own palacial prison, afterwards graciously agreeing to be incarcerated there, and then making a leisurely escape when extradition to the U.S. seemed plausible – the skyrocketing of Colombia’s murder rate can be traced back to Pablo.

Botero has commented that in painting Escobar, he hopes to put the violence of the past behind Colombia, and give Medellin specifically hope, potential. Botero is also a Medellin native; interestingly, he spends only one month a year in Colombia, and was in New York or Europe for the entirety of Escobar’s reign. He still considers himself the “most Colombian” of Colombia’s artists.

All the works were donated by Botero. And I think it is indicative of a larger Colombian attitude towards itself. Today, for instance, is another holiday. There are so many, it’s  difficult to keep up with. And once again, outside of almost all the residential buildings in our neighborhood, flags are put up, unfurled, celebrated. Colombians love Colombia. And they seem willing to not only take the good with the bad, but embrace the good within even the baddest of characters.