She was the first woman to exhibit nude paintings and led the Modern art movement in Colombia. Revolutionary, she challenged female roles in a conservative society in the mid-20th century.
Débora Arango was born in 1907 in the city of Medellín where she would live almost her entire life. She was encouraged to study art by her parents from an early age and at the beginning of the 1930s enrolled at Instituto de Bellas Artes de Medellín. The artist dedicated her time at school most to portraits but developed an interest in more dynamic subjects such as life in the city under modernisation and its people.
Inspired by teachers who had spent time in Europe, Arango experimented with new techniques and her style became more expressionist with intense colours and brush strokes.
Transgression and censorship
A life of censorship and ban over the artist’s work started in her first exhibition, where she showed female nudes and they were labelled as “scandalous and obscene” by the jury, the exhibition organizers and the press. Appointing the contradiction over the nudes presented by male artists not being censored like hers, the organizers simply blamed the fact that she was a woman and therefore should not paint nudes. At a time when the Catholic Church held a lot of power in Latin America, especially regarding moral issues, the artist was attacked and denied space in museums and galleries. Over Arango’s career, she had shows cancelled and put down with no explanation in Colombia and in Spain by conservative governments and institutions.
Women at the centre
Much of Arango’s work depicts subjects that lived on the margins of society which always caused controversy in her country. Prostitutes, poor workers and the nightlife are present in many of her paintings. But the strongest theme the artist pursued was the woman’s role in society. She always put women at the centre of her art, exploring prejudices, the secondary role to which they were subjected but also desires and beauty.
Débora Arango was also a fierce critic of the conservative and corrupt governments in Colombia during the 1950s.
A long way to recognition
After the 1960s, the artist retired from public view and produced ceramics and tiles. In 1984 the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín exhibited a retrospective of her work and she started to receive recognition. She died at the age of 98 in 2005. Today, Débora Arango is one of the most important Colombian artists and a reference in Modern and Feminist art.
To know more:
In 2019 the public TV channel Teleantioquia exhibited a series about the artist’s life: “Débora, la Mujer que desnudó a Colombia”. You can watch it on YouTube.
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