Fernando Botero is a name synonymous with Latin American art – and more specifically with Colombia, where the artist comes from. His unique style is recognisable through the rounded, voluptuous and voluminous figures he creates as sculptures or on paintings. “They are not fat,” explains his daughter, Lina Botero Zea, who is the curator of Botero in China, a touring retrospective of the artist’s work. “My father is obsessed with volume and he creates sensuality with it.”
Over the last six months, nine sculptures from the artist’s personal collection have been on display in Shanghai and Beijing, attracting up to 21,000 visitors a day. The Hong Kong Central Habourfront is the show’s final destination on its China tour. While the 84-year-old Botero himself has been to China twice in the last six months, it’s his children, Lina and Fernando, that have made this trip to Hong Kong on their father’s behalf. They are able to speak almost as intimately about the work as the great artist himself.
“Art has always been cemented in past traditions,” says Lina, but Botero believes that art should speak directly to the audience without need of explanation. It should be immediately understandable, bringing about pleasure and a sense of beauty. Fernando (son) adds some historical context: “My father admires the greatest artists, like Raphael, Michelangelo and Ingres – these are his true sources. He spent his youth with them in Spain, Italy and France’s greatest museums. He loves art history and he researches a lot.” Fernando (son) calls himself a researcher too, and it’s one of the ways he relates to his father’s work. “What strikes me is that my father believes that who you admire defines your projection in life, so whatever you do, admire those who have done what you’re trying to achieve,” says Fernando.
Lina approaches her father’s art emotionally, because she has seen his works as they progress, forming a lifelong relationship with them. “There is rarely a sculpture that I haven’t seen while it was in the studio, so each one takes me back to anther point in time,” she says. “The work is sensual. It is playful and colourful with elements of satire. My father is a humorous person – I see a twist of humour in his work and perhaps I can see things in his work that others don’t. I love to see other’s reactions.” Lina describes the feeling inspired by her father’s work as “home.” “It makes me feel good,” she says. “I always smile – and I think that is what he sets out to achieve.”
While Botero’s works seem to speak to the masses, attracting 1.5 million visitors in Beijing and Shanghai combined, Lina says it’s the approachability of the concept-free work that gives it such popular appeal. He even had fences removed from his sculptures in Shanghai to let the public directly interact with them.
Botero has exhibited around the world in some of the most well-known public places. He had a solo exhibition on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, and shows on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. and Park Avenue in New York. The invitation to exhibit in China first came in 2008 but it took until now to find the right time to mount the show.
With Latin America being so far from China, both geographically and culturally, both of Botero’s children are amazed his work has been received so well. “It’s very foreign to us, but we really believe in the universality of his art,” says Fernando. “I’ve seen his work all over the world, from Europe to America, Latin America and Asia, and I see the same reaction amongst the press, the public and the critics – there is a strong enthusiasm for his work. For this same sentiment to be conveyed worldwide is very unique for an artist.”
Although Lina is officially the show’s curator, it is Botero who chooses which sculptures will be sent on tour and where they will be placed. “We get a floor plan and any other information, and he sits with my mother and with me on the phone and decides what goes where,” she explains. In every exhibition, the pieces are in a different order and position – and once the shows are under way, Botero is constantly calling his children for updates, asking for photos and information about what is happening and how the works are received.
Walking through the figures at Central Harbourfront, there is no way to view them as separate from the Hong Kong skyline; they are carefully placed to interact with the buildings around them. Many of his works are odes to art history (and the history that inspired those classical works), such as Rape of Europe, inspired by the Ancient Greek story of the Abduction of Europa, and Reclining Woman, which speaks of Manet’s Olympia. What leaves a particular impression is the juxtaposition of Botero’s curvaceous shapes with Hong Kong’s rigid office towers. Woman with Cigarette frolicks without care, staring the banking district in the eye. Lying Woman basks gloriously in the sun, under the gaze of the city.
“His works stand up for themselves,” says Lina. “We have seen the works in emblematic places and it is always different – in Paris, New York and even in Florence next to Michelangelo’s David. But the works are never crushed by what’s around them,” she adds.
“One of the most amazing moments for me was the first time I saw the lights go on across the Hong Kong skyline, as the sun was setting and I could see the sculptures within this stunning sunset over the capital of Asia,” says Fernando. No matter what success Botero has, though, he returns to work as usual. “He enjoys his successes for about ten seconds, and then it’s back to the studio, eight hours a day.”
Botero in Hong Kong brought by Parkview Art Hong Kong is free to visit at the Central Harbourfront Event Space until August 14, 2016, from 9:00-21:00 daily.