ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Athar Jaber as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Athar Jaber was born in Rome, Italy, in 1982 to Iraqi artists Afifa Aleiby and Jaber Alwan. He grew up between Rome, Florence, The Netherlands and Antwerp. Moving around several countries and cities helped reinforce a sense of belonging that went beyond geographical borders. This notion acted as the framework to his artistic practice, in a desire to outline a common human experience across cultures and time. His practice mainly focuses on stone sculpture, but his artistic output also includes other expressions such as performance, video, photography and text.
Recent solo exhibitions include Offerings (National Museum of Fine Arts, La Habana, Cuba, 2018), and Where Pain Becomes Beauty (Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, 2015). While international group shows include the Bruges Triennale (Bruges, 2021), Future Genealogies (6th Lubumbashi Biennial, Congo, 2019), A Cool Breeze (Rudolfinum Galerie, Prague (2019), 100 Masterpieces of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art (Institute du Monde Arabe, Paris, France, 2017), Jerusalem Lives (The Palestinian Museum, Birzeit, West Bank, 2017). Jaber’s work is part of various private and public collections such as SMAK Ghent, the Barjeel Art Foundation, The Palestinian Museum, the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana, the National Museum of Lubumbashi and the FAO Headquarters in Rome among others. Having obtained his PhD in the Arts at the University of Antwerp in 2021, he currently lives in Antwerp, Belgium, where he practices his profession as an artist, and as an Associate Professor of sculpture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
AJ: I recently finished a 5-year long practice-based PhD research in visual arts that focused on the relationship between sculpture and violence. Before embarking in this research my practice was primarily centered around the human body and its depiction as a fractured, fragmented, incomplete, and deformed entity. I felt this was an appropriate way to address contemporary socio-political issues while still maintaining a connection with the figurative tradition of sculpture. My PhD research in turn brought me to investigate a more profound yet less visible (symbolic) function of stone that can be used to address structural and systemic violence. Examples of such roles are border stones, which have been used since ancient times to mark borders between countries and as such, represent agreements of non-violence sustained by the threat of violence; or in other cases, stones used as weapons, cast by protestors against their oppressors. Additionally, most laws, either religious or imperialistic, were initially carved in stone as a literal base onto which these authoritarian laws could be presented and spread to the population. Another example is the historical use of stone as an altar, onto which sacrificial slaughtering regularly took place to satisfy the demand of an omnipotent (religious) authority that ruled through the threat of punishment. Still within the realm of religion, it is interesting to note how in most religious beliefs, stone plays a central role in veneration rituals and is the recipient of various kinds of offerings. We can think of the Black Stone in Mecca, the Anointment Stone and the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the Lingam in Hinduism, and the Otanes in Afro-Cuban religion. Many more similar examples can be provided to evidence the entanglement between policies of power and stone.
This investigation enriched my practice both in a conceptual and visual way. Although I’m now back at working with the human figure, the research made me aware of the fact that stone carries a rich symbolic meaning that must not be neglected when using it as the main material in one’s own work.
AE: Can you elaborate on your approach to using stone as your primary medium? In what ways have you experimented with stone within your practice?
AJ: In sculpture, the line between creation and destruction is very thin. After all, one carves a sculpture by inflicting heavy blows to the stone with the aid of a hammer and chisel. Taken out of their context, the images of as ISIS terrorist destroying cultural heritage and a sculptor carving a sculpture, are not too different from one another. Michelangelo defined sculpture as “that which is done by means of removal”. I provocatively asked myself: “removal of what? and by which means? Do I need to use a hammer and chisel, or can I also apply other tools and methods to shape a rough block of stone? And how would the choice of these tools and methods influence the reading of the work?”
So, as a way of countering the destructive actions of uncivil thugs that we see being broadcasted in the media, I adopted their methods to create instead to destroy: I tied a stone to a car and dragged it around the streets; I put stones on fire; threw them from rooftops; poured acid on them; shot at them with firearms; attached and ignited explosives onto them. All these actions would result in the removal of fragments of stone from the block, and in this sense, they remained faithful to Michelangelo’s definition of sculpture. But was the result something that we could call a sculpture? I am leaving that open. As what mattered to me was not the final resulting object but an investigation of the artistic, and more in specific the sculptural practice, and how the methodology adopted for creating a work influence its reading and opens new ways to address contemporary socio-political issues.
AE: You are primarily known as a sculptor, but can you talk to us about your performance, photography, and video practice? What is a recent project that you can share?
AJ: As I said, in the actions I just mentioned what mattered more to me was not the resulting object but the action itself. Also because the action, however aggressive this might look, often did not impact the stone too much. For example, in a recent performance I took on the impractical task to shape a large block of marble by stoning it with cobblestones. From a technical point of view, the act shared many similarities with the more traditional carving of stone with a hammer and chisel: striking the stone with something harder in order to remove material from it; the repetitive, physical gesture; the rhythmic sound of the impact. After the performance, the initial shape of the stone has not really been impacted by the activity of throwing stones. But the action was necessary to address a wide variety of sensitive issues such as the death punishment by stoning that many women still face in certain countries for committing adultery; the ritual of stoning a wall during Hajj; the revolutionary movement of Paris 1968; David defeating Goliath; the intifadas… Interestingly, this gesture of throwing stones can be interpreted in different, even contrasting ways: as an act of oppression, terrorism or one of liberation, depending from which ideological side one is looking at the action. And since it is the action that I want to stress above the sculpture, the documentation of these performances through video is as important, if not more, than the sculpture.
Photography is another way I found effective in documenting how stone has a symbolic role woven into the societal fabric. For example, in a recent diptych I photographed a window at different times of the day, and how cobblestones are used to hold its exterior shutters either open or closed. To me, this points to the effort that is required to maintain a specific status quo. It’s easy to recognize violence when it’s encountered in its “extrovert” appearance, but there is also a more “introvert” expression of it, and this is arguably more insidious. Philosophers like Zygmunt Bauman and Slavoj Žižek openly addressed this topic. Bauman, for example, compares the role of the state as that of a gardener, who needs to cut off and eradicate any weeds that threaten the overall harmony of their garden. Žižek rhetorically asks if we are aware of the structural and systemic violence that is necessary to maintain things as they are. Transposing this pressing question to a more concrete example, I like to ask if we are aware of the huge effort needed to maintain a paved road. As testified by the endless amount of road maintenance works that we encounter yearly, street paving needs to be repeatedly reset and the gaps between the cobblestones need to be constantly scraped to prevent weeds (nature) from taking over the civilized, urban landscape. Therefore, cobblestones and street paving become representatives of the invisible violence that is enforced by the state to maintain the/its status quo. By the way, it is remarkable that so many protests happen in urban settings against local powers (such as Paris 1968), and they symbolically remove and throw the same pieces of rocks in the road that are so well preserved by established authorities. And I found the perfect summary of all this in the use we often make of (cobble)stones to hold a door or window shutters either open or closed.
AE: You are an Associate Professor at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts where you have been teaching stone carving for over 12 years. Can you speak about your experience teaching, both pre- and post-COVID? Has the act of teaching and conversing with students taught you something in turn, or influenced any aspects of your practice?
AJ: Over the years I have taught sculpture and stone carving, in particular. It has become part of my identity and perhaps also part of my artistic practice. I see it as a responsibility to share my knowledge on the subject, both technically and conceptually. Technically, teaching pushes me to articulate in words what I might do intuitively, thus helping me develop a more thorough knowledge of the craft, which in turn makes me more effective in passing that knowledge. It’s a virtuous circle. They say that the best way to learn something is to teach it.
Furthermore, teaching this seemingly outdated art that is increasingly being replaced by new technologies, urges me to think deeply about what it means to carve stone and make stone sculptures today. It compels me to make sense of this inefficient practice in today’s reality and give it a place in a broader socio-political context.
Teaching also keeps me sharp. It motivates me to learn more about technologies, ideas, and concepts – from past, contemporary and future perspectives. And not necessarily limited to the realm of art but also of science and philosophy. I feel I must be prepared for whatever question rises during class.
Despite all the suffering that it has brought, the Covid-19 pandemic has some silver linings. It forced us to adopt new ways of working that existed previously but which we were reluctant to implement. In my experience, remote teaching allowed some of my students to book immense progress because it prompted us to focus on a more rational approach to sculpture. It seems contradictory and counterintuitive, but when learning to sculpt, the materiality of the stone, or the clay, and the tools required to work it, take all our focus away from the big picture. Remote teaching removed the possibility of engaging with a 3D object thus allowing us to focus on the process rather than the result. And this brought a big shift in the student’s vision and approach to (traditional) sculpting.
AE: Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, you began recording and posting weekly tutorials about sculpting on YouTube. Can you talk to us about these tutorials? What drove you to produce these videos and what has been the reception?
AJ: The pedagogical realizations and successes I just mentioned revealed to me the potentials of online teaching. Particularly the highly personalized approach and the adaptation of a specific subject to each individual’s needs. People can learn at their own pace and during the time of day that suits them best. They can watch a class over and over again, and there are no marks given. Which is something I find ridiculous in the highly subjective realm of art education. Besides, by sharing what I know on YouTube, the spreading of the (basic) knowledge is free and accessible to everyone who has an internet connection. It’s a more egalitarian dissemination of information.
My stone carving tutorials that you find on YouTube are alternated by personal vlogs where I discuss my own work talking about the ideas behind them and the process of making them. In combination with other social media platforms, these two types of videos have enabled me to develop relations with the community of stone carvers around the globe as well as of art collectors, bringing us all closer together. A development that will undoubtedly influence future plans and projects.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
AJ: It’s a cliché, but as a stone carver one cannot avoid mentioning Michelangelo’s influence on one’s practice. But instead of his most revered works, such as the David, or his first Pietà, I am more attracted to his unfinished sculptures such as the slaves or his last Pietà. These works have a contemporary look and address topics that interest me more than the mere representation of beauty. For the same reason, Francis Bacon is another major influence. He often mentioned that his works should be seen as realistic portrayals of the inner reality of the human soul and the human condition. I think you can easily see their influence resonating in my work. On a more contemporary and less evident level, I can mention Paul McCarthy’s gruesome rendition of humanity and Joseph Beuys’ and Thomas Hirschorn’s commitment to social change. There are many other visual artists that I could mention. But I must stress that other forms of art such as music, cinema, literature and science and philosophy also have a huge impact on me, the way I see the world, and consequently, my work.
AE: Do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2022-2023?
AJ: At the moment, I don’t have any exhibitions planned. This is a deliberate choice, as I had too many in recent years. Combined with the recent completion of my PhD and my teaching engagements at the Academy, the logistics and bureaucracy behind exhibitions took their toll on my production. Stone carving is a slow and labor-intensive process – I don’t have assistants and do everything by myself – that often clashes with the quick demand of the art market. Also, my work is generally bundled in a series of sculptures that tackle a specific topic, and thus require an even longer time to produce. I want to slow down, prioritize what’s important and focus on a few, but significant projects. I currently have seven projects in my head that will eventually consist of two dozen sculptures. If I can realize those in the next twenty years, I can then die happily.