My blog has been quiet for the past few days given my preoccupation with a business trip to South America – my first visit to South America – where I witnessed in person a seldom discussed truth that seems to have undermined the possibilities for so many potentially stunning naturist destinations, where shivering immodest explorers of the northern hemisphere would gladly unleash truckloads of naked tourist dollars, should there only be a viable opportunity to do so. If only there were a few more attracive options that weren’t essentially disqualified by the admonition that “nudity is deeply offensive to the locals, based largely on their fervent Catholicism.” (France, albeit a tepidly Catholic county, boasts about 300 naturist destinations; while all of South America, including the Caribbean, can only produce about two-dozen such opportunities – significantly fewer if you are seeking a formally recognized resort with overnight accommodations!) Apparently, when you get south of the equator, nudity and religion are simply not simpatico.
Admittedly, I have a long way to go in attaining any sort of cohesive understanding of the role of the Catholic Church is South America, particularly in those regions that find their modern roots (ethnically and culturally) in the colonial conquests of 16th century restless Spaniards seeking a brand new world. Quite ironic, given that today Spain, itself, has found its place amongst the most tolerant of all nations is the acceptance of social/pubic nudity, even though the Catholic Church retains a significant influence there as well.
This morning, I was struck by the momentary ritual of a young man who crossed himself as the plane accelerated for takeoff from Bogota’s El Dorado International Airport; a fleeting reminder that despite all the conflict, violence, and uncertainties related to the safety of walking down the most well lit city streets, the influence of peoples’ religious convictions in Columbia is pervasive! The ascent to the church of Monserrate is said to be the road of an annual Passiontide pilgrimage of suffering, where devout believers reportedly make the two-mile walk on their knees in an effort to experience the suffering of Christ. And the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, though mainly a secular tourist attraction, is loaded with religious imagery, including a remarkable depiction, in 3D sculpted relief, of Michelangelo’s famous painting from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In neck-craning mural form, the genitalia are barely discernible. In the replicated sculpture that lies at your feet, it seems downright graphic.
I am not Catholic, so far be it for me to pontificate as to why or how nudity in Art in the most holy of places resides without question amidst the most holy of other historical artifacts, but dare a tourist attempt to enter such a sanctuary in Bogota, Buenos Aires, or “how dare you?” Venice or Rome, with even a shoulder or kneecap exposed, she will surely be turned away at the door by an indignant curator. Adam can be naked. Mary can be caught breast-feeding, and even Christ might be draped in the loin cloth that would be deemed le minimum in the South of France, but even the elbows and thighs of living humans are deeply irreverent, and thus forbidden, when visiting such exhibits that feature such explicit nudity!
It was also during this journey that I learned that the work of the famous artist, Fernando Botero, brings a great sense of pride to the people of Columbia. Perhaps you don’t recognize his name, but reprints of his work can be found at nearly any tourist-trap-poster-shop in the United States. In this case, I couldn’t resist the urge to purchase a street market facsimile of his depiction of Adam and Eve. Particularly enduring about his work is not only the prolific painting of nudes, but almost without exception, the subjects of these portraits always have a quasi-animated quality about them, and as evidenced here, they are rarely svelte and seductive as one typically sees in the ‘more sophisticated’ celebrations of the naked body. From this, I have drawn my own subliminal conclusion that not only does this artist consider nudity a fact of life, (Another favorite is the female standing before the bathroom mirror – below) but that even those bodies with additional curves and bulges are to be celebrated as part of God’s creation! While avoiding a statement of my own religious convictions here, I find myself, in this case, simply trying to calibrate the perception of nudity in a culture that is predominantly religious, but at the same time, apparently finds a person sunbathing on the grass more provocative than so much of the imagery that adorns the local museums and the most sacred of spaces.
As an interesting aside, the women traveling in my group were informed that Columbian women never wear shorts in public, even when the weather is warm. Indeed, I observed two pairs of capris, several skirts that scarcely exposed the ankles, and all the rest of the women in full-length pants.
Suffice it to say, this meandering naturist did not tempt fate by wasting time to seek out a naturist venue in Columbia. There was neither time, nor desire to do so, especially given the sense that one is quite vulnerable when wandering about the city park, even when fully clothed. (Perhaps a potential mugger would leave you alone if it was evident you had no pockets!) I can even understand the issues with social nudity in Italy, living so close to the Pope and all, But here, half way around the world, in a society where the ancestral cousins are haggling over the right to walk around naked in Barcelona? I just don’t get it.
Maybe one of my readers can explain to me this dichotomy, that defines the divine sanctity of seeing the infant Jesus a Mary’s naked breast, rendered in a $2 print, hanging next to that of a nationally celebrated artist who brings a humorous acceptance to artistically familiar nudes. But should a female be caught baring her breasts, even in a ‘responsibly remote’ location, never mind genitalia, the punishment will likely be decisive and swift.
Of course, there are similarly double standards in the US. How lovely would it be to spend the morning in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) pondering a nude photography exhibit, then take a picnic lunch a few blocks north to sunbathe in Grand Central Park without inciting a riot that would surely culminate in the heroic arrival of the mounted police. But Americans are quite outspoken about their prudery, but at least proportionally, less outspoken about their religious convictions. Have we really reduced the acceptance of social nudity to the legend of two people in a garden, a serpent, and an apple? Or have we simply come to assume that God loathes the very creation that artists have revered as the epitome of beauty; most worthy of celebration for the entire history of Art as we know it?
Gotta say… I think it’s all very confusing.