The work of Débora Arango shook the stringent atmosphere of the “city of eternal spring.” Her subject matter addressed Colombia’s political and gender violence, depicting the poverty and brutality, as well as its corrupt leaders. Her strong brush strokes were called ugly by her critics and her choice of color violent. Yet her stark and urgent visual testimony of her time only recently has finally been re-examined and appreciated.
One of 12 children, born on November 11 in 2007, to an affluent and elite family from the Antioquia province of Colombia, Arango began studying art at the age of 13. She attended the Instituto de Bellas Artes in Medellín from 1933-1935 before working with noted muralist Pedro Nel Gómez. She then worked largely in isolation which helped her to develop a freer and more personal form of expression.
La Amiga (1939) Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín [MAMM]
In November of 1939 Arango exhibited watercolors and oils which included two nudes, one of which was La Amiga at the Exposición de Artistas Professionals at the Club Union in Medellín Exhibition of Professional Artists. Her work received negative reviews and moral condemnation. The gaze the La Amiga was considered transgressive. This was a time a time when Colombian women were not considered citizens, they didn’t gain the right to vote until 1957. Arango was the first woman in the country’s history to paint and exhibit female nudes.
The following year her work was shown at the Teatro Colón de Bogotá. Again her nudes were described as immoral, perverse, pornographic and technically incorrect. Critics claimed that she painted impudent works that not even a man should exhibit. Even those who supported her work provided excuses with comments such as she was a “masculinized” woman or having “masculine potentialities.”
Friné o Trata de blancas, (1940) Watercolor, Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín [MAMM]
Friné o Trata de blancas portrays the discomfort of the male vigilant gaze on women. Arango emphasized the contrast of experiences of the woman and the men who surround her. Her figures exposed the experiences of women in Latin America.
Esquizofrenia en la cárcel (1940) Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín [MAMM]
In Esquizofrenia en la cárcel (Schizophrenia in Jail), the critical content of the work has been tempered in the exhibitions and interpretations of the past. It was these depictions of marginalized and ignored women that were deemed to be painted “incorrectly” to the standards of art, which earned her silence and oblivion throughout the twentieth century. No Colombian or foreign museum would take her works; private collectors looked the other way and she did not have any gallery representation.
Justicia (c. 1944) Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín [MAMM]
In Justicia, the central figure of the prostitute is stopped by the police — with their pointy ears, bony fingers and rotting teeth they surround and grab the woman, a reminder of their innate weapon and power is symbolized by the billy club. By looking down, the woman keeps something for herself by not engaging with the viewer or the men.
Adolescencia (1939), Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín [MAMM]
In 1946 she traveled to Mexico to study the muralists. Back in Medellin in 1948, exhibited additional works. This time Adolescence again scandalized society. Repeated complaints to the Archbishop by the League of the Decency were raised. Arango was sent to the Episcopal Palace. When asked where she got the models for her paintings Arango responded: “They are the daughters of the Ladies of the League of Decency.”
Arango was invited and exhibited her work in Madrid Spain in 1955. Under pressure from the Colombian right, Spain took down her bold and direct paintings. At this point in time, Colombia hadn`t experienced avant-garde movements, unlike Mexico, Cuba, or Argentina.
In 1987, Arango donated 233 of her works to the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín [MAMM]. Very little examples have been traded in the open market. She also worked in ceramics and the graphic arts.
In 2003 Arango was awarded the Cruz de Boyacá, Colombia’s highest honor. Her work does not idealize or embrace political doctrine. Today she is considered one of the most important artists in Colombia Since 2016, her image appears on the 2000 Colombian pesos bill.