Benjamin Betsalel and the ‘inside’ portraits

Artist Ben Betsalel painting Florencia.

The voices of hundreds echo through the passageways, rising to a dull roar as artist Benjamin M. Betsalel is escorted further inside the prison, carrying a 4 by 5 foot canvas and a rolling suitcase filled with art supplies. Betsalel clears his throat to speak over the noise as he begins to pass out paper, pencils and mirrors to the group before him.  “Today, we are going to learn to draw a self portrait.”

These self portrait classes, taught by Betsalel to groups of inmates in three different prisons in Colombia, are just one part of a project called Humans Inside and Outside, a collaboration between Betsalel and the Colombian delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), commemorating 100 years that the ICRC has been visiting individuals deprived of their liberty around the world.

Humans Inside and Outside seeks to examine the effects of incarceration on individuals and their family members.  To accomplish this, Betsalel has created a powerful series of 13 portrait vignettes, each one composed of three elements: a large-scale portrait, a personal narrative and an object of importance.

The individuals depicted in the portraits come from diverse regions and backgrounds, including portraits of incarcerated individuals, their family members and one prison guard.  Their stories express a wide range of emotions ranging from frustration, to hope, to tragedy, to personal and mental strength.  Together with the objects of importance selected by each individual, the vignettes offer a unique window into the realities of those affected by imprisonment, illuminating the commonalities that we all share as human beings.

Imprisonment is a stigmatized subject all over the world, and Betsalel believes that it is important to try to make an effort to overcome this fact in order to facilitate the successful re-entry of imprisoned individuals into society upon their release.

“Just because someone is inside doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to learn, to feed off of others energy in a positive way, to have new experiences, to grow, to investigate their minds.”

The project was inaugurated August 31st at the Museo Nacional.  The choice of location was no coincidence—the popular landmark was chosen because of its history in relation to the topic of imprisonment.  What is now recognized as the largest and oldest museum in Colombia was previously known as the Panóptico.  For more than 70 years, the Panóptico was the most important prison in Colombia, housing thousands of inmates from its construction in 1874 until 1946, after which point it became known as the Museo Nacional.

Humans Inside and Out, which will soon be making its way around the country as a traveling exhibition, aims to invite a diverse audience to reflect on the realities of incarceration and the implications it has for the individuals and families that it affects.

Betsalel is a thoughtful man whose compassion for others runs deep.  Asked about his own reflections on this project, he pauses before carefully selecting his words. “It is the work of art to face things that often are not looked at much. This project is about dialogue.  The experience I had with the people involved in this project—yes, I crossed through gates to get there.  But once this communication begins, in that moment, we’re just two people.  That’s it.”

The intention of creating dialogue through art is a theme that is central to Betsalel’s work.  Originally from the United States, Betsalel has spent years living in countries around the world creating work that spans from portraiture to abstract landscapes.

Over the past two years, Betsalel has traveled throughout Colombia from his home base in Florencia, Caquetá, creating series of portrait vignettes that illustrate the true diversity in communities and regions across the country.

I ask him how he selects the individuals and communities for his projects. Betsalel smiles and tells me, “You could paint anyone in this world, everyone is interesting.  I try to narrow it down using different topics—be it place, personal experience, some sort of structural element that I can use to focus on an issue or group of people and to look at their experience and these ideas of commonality.”

Focusing on groups as diverse as individuals from the tiny town of Natagaima, Tolima, which finds itself under intense social, economic and environmental pressures, to an ancestral fishing village called Taganga, to the family members of desaparecidos, it is clear that Betsalel truly believes that everyone has a story to tell.

Though he is somewhat of a nomad, Betsalel makes it clear that he intends to return to Colombia in order to continue with the projects he has begun, and to develop new projects in the future.  Particularly in a country like Colombia, as rich in cultural diversity as it is complex in its history of conflict, it is true that everyone has a story deserving of being shared

To see more of Benjamin M. Betsalel’s work visit his website:


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