CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

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The Art of Débora Arango: From Censorship to Canonization in Colombia

Session 8 Art and Taboo

San Diego State University


From 1939 through the 1950s, every time the Colombian artist Débora Arango (1907-2005) exhibited her paintings, they ignited scathing criticism from conservative sectors: some of her work was censored; at least two exhibitions were closed. Her imagery examines issues of gender, the body, sexuality, class, politics, and religion. Her frank treatment of these themes provokedstrong reactions in a country that was grappling with rapid modernization. The harshest criticism was aimed at her nudes, a genre that was still uncommon and controversial in Colombia in the early twentieth century.  Because Arango was a woman and depicted the body without hiding sexual attributes, theexhibition of her female nudes invariably set off scandals. La mística (The Mystic) of1940, which combines nudity and religion,and Adolescencia (Adolescence), undated,which suggests female desire, violated taboos.

Years before Arango began creating political satires, she was pulled into national politics when the Liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who was thecurrent Minister of Education, invited her to hold a solo exhibition in the prestigious Teatro Colón in Bogota. The watercolors she showed in Bogota in 1940 embroiled her in political controversy at the national level.

This paper examines the diverse factors that affected the critical reception of Arango’s work and traces her rise, marginalization, reemergence, and celebration as a key figure of Colombian culture.


Nancy Deffebach is an art historian who specializes in modern and contemporary Latin American art. Her research focuses on women artists in Latin America.She earned a PhD in art history from the University of Texas at Austin in 2000. Her dissertation is entitled “Images of Plants in the Art of María Izquierdo, Frida Kahlo, and Leonora Carrington: Gender, Identity, and Spirituality in the Context of Modern Mexico.” Her book, María Izquierdo and Frida Kahlo: Challenging Visions in Modern Mexican Art, was published by the University of Texas Press in 2015. The book examines the ways in which Izquierdo and Kahlo participated in the national and artistic discourses of postrevolutionary Mexico. Deffebach is currently researching the work of the Colombian painter Débora Arango. She has taught art history at San Diego State University, Georgia State University, Rice University, and the University of Houston.She lives in Grover Beach, California.