A conversation with a sculptor about his work and curiosity for violence.
Date of interview: March 5, 2017
Estimated reading time: 17 minutes
The weather was gloomy the day we planned our visit. It’s a drizzly Sunday early March, but the light is graceful and almost pretty in its glow. Photographer (Tom Peeters) and I met Athar in his home in the north of Antwerp. There we drank coffee and talked about the artist’s book and art collection. Facing the window, in the middle of the living area is an impressive matt-brown grand piano. The coffee is somewhat too intense for our delicate Sunday stomachs and so we, resounding with caffeine, find ourselves in our car following Athar as he drives towards his studio in the west of Antwerp. Athar leads us, as he hosted us, and indeed as he seems to do everything: distinguished, courteous, controlled.
We talk with the artist about the alienation he felt as a young child, the homeland of his parents, his heroes, violence, artificial intelligence, and his quest for freedom.
Both your uncle, your mother and your father are known painters. Growing up in Florence in the midst of such an artistic family seems romantic. Was that so?
No (laughs). Although not terrible, it was quite difficult to be a second-generation child. Not like the terrible images of refugees that confront us now, but there was a certain alienation that has shaped me. Italian was my first language, and I was born in Italy, but you have a strange name and ‘otherness’ that makes you a target for negative attention. As a teenager, it was romantic. From my early teens onwards, I visited daily the numerous museums and simply hung around the city to draw marble statues. I grew up with painters and artists around me, so drawing was easy.
After your parents left Iraq for studies, three successive waves of war flooded the country of your origin and your parents could never return to it as a result. How was that growing up?
When they left, they said goodbye to their family and environment for a short period. Then the war broke out. The Iraqi diaspora, a whole generation of artists, musicians, directors, writers who left to study in the 70s, have all been forced to leave their homeland behind. Those who were homesick enough to return haven’t survived. Some have been tortured and were able to flee. Some of them got a better situation, some worse.
Did you grow up with that sadness?
Yes. Even if you listen to older Iraqi music, you feel much sadness and melancholy. It is inherent to the culture. If you wake up in Italy as a child, with full knowledge of the facts and consequences of a war in the country where the rest of your family still lives, you simply have a different view of the world than your peers.
Your work has a bright, beautiful and light side. In your material, the anatomical beauty, the refinement of the result, I see examples of that lightness. But as a spectator you also catch a darker side. Is that derived from your past?
Content wise, my work settles closer to the dark side of life. The bodies and heads are unclear, ambiguous, distorted and broken. An identity crisis is at play. Who you are and where you belong are problems that concern me. The bodies and heads are unclear, ambiguous, distorted and broken. An identity crisis is at play.
You mentioned earlier in interviews that your national identity no longer affects your current identity, but you are mostly raised by an Iraqi woman who could never return to her homeland. I’m genuinely wondering how and where that distance starts and ends truthfully.
I obviously hate to see what is happening in Iraq. But by now, no more than when I see destruction, war or injustice elsewhere in the world. Syria, Tibet, South America, Africa. After a while you see universal connections and boundaries start blurring. The national parochialism doesn’t fit this time anymore. The world exhibitions, biennales and sports competitions, arisen to affirm boundaries in a healthy way, are also changed and the world has opened up. There are Algerians who represent Germany at biennials, people of African descent to play in European football teams. I really try to think beyond borders and time. In my work you will therefor find few references to time. No clothes, no objects, only the naked body.
The national parochialism doesn’t fit this time anymore.
You have previously studied piano. As a twenty-year-old you moved to Antwerp to study sculpture and have moved away from music. Why?
With pain in my heart I chose to become an artist. I felt I did not have enough talent to be the pianist I wanted to be. Because of my background I had more talent for visual arts than for music. It has taken me years to make that decision.
You refer to music in your titles. Your first four sculpting began with the title Opus 4, after which each respective image was given a number from 1 to 4. Does music remain to be a great inspirator for you?
I named those works with a wink to my previous study. People need names, but I do not want to force the spectators to see all things like me. I could have given numbers or codes as scientists do with stars. But indeed, music may still be one of my biggest influences to date. When listening to certain music, feelings just overwhelm you. Listening to John Coltrane’s later recordings gives you absolute freedom for instance! With my work, I of course want to appeal to those feelings. Important feelings, such as prostration, anger and freedom.
Now that you mention a certain ‘search for freedom’, your first sculptures come to mind. The four works of Opus 4, to me, seem ‘caught’.
Every material has its spatial limitations. I chose to work exclusively with marble. In a later stage of my production, as in my main series (Opus 5), I learned to take more of an acquired freedom. This translates into technique as well as concept: drill holes, chisel tracks and broken fragments remained. Now I dare to let things go: put a sculpture in acid or shoot at it with bullets. I no longer chain myself to traditional sculpture techniques.
When I chose to study art, I instinctively chose this discipline. I didn’t doubt it for a second.
Why marble then?
I think it’s rooted in my teenage Italian walks. Then and there a bond with sculpting emerged. You have a more direct and intimate contact with a sculpture than with, for example a painting. When I chose to study art, I instinctively chose this discipline. I didn’t doubt it for a second. Much later, I could explain this rationally: a sculpture takes up our dimensional space and threatens our freedom. It takes away space.
I produce my works directly in marble, they are improvisations. Most sculptors first build up something in clay or plaster and then put that image in marble. I am inspired by what is happening around us. A book, the light, the stone, my state of mind at the moment. It also becomes more personal this way.
Why do you still work according to the craft’s old techniques in a time of 3D printers and robots?
Exactly because of what I just stated! Many artists work with marble because it fits a certain classical tradition, and it is prestigious. Therefore, if you have the economic ability to make it happen, it can, indeed, be done by machines as well. But these artists are no sculptors. What I do is different. I myself work with the material and this action, which today is more and more rare, adds something to the work. It gives it another, almost metaphysical, dimension.
The reproducibility of the sculpture in these times has created enormous freedom for sculptors. Thanks to the technological developments, I can now express my emotion and thoughts in a more abstract way. I can be guided by my state of mind. How I feel at one point affects how I work on another. It is comparable to the moment in history that photography took over the task of painting. This resulted in the creation of abstract art, Dadaism, Expressionism and Surrealism, just to name a few.
So you believe in the aura of an artwork. What does that look like to you?
What impact does the way you make something have for the perception of an image? Creating a sculpture with your bare hands, hammer and chisel, calls for a different interpretation than when it was shot at with firearms and bullets. I sometimes feel a like a torturer. Hammering, chiseling, knocking and removing material with brutal violence while making something beautiful: it is a contradiction. With all I have experimented with other materials recently, trying to introduce the idea of patinating again. I only use “pigments” that carry a lot of meaning: wine, blood, crude oil, gold. But this is a new project, and I don’t want to tell too much about it yet.
What is it about art that attracts you as an observer?
I am often more moved by music. As an observer I approach art more intuitively and it is difficult to accurately identify what plays then. Last week I visited an exhibition of Cy Twombly. From books I never had a good idea of his work. Actually, if you want to talk about the aura of an artwork, he might be a good artist to discuss. His work really touched me. It must have been years since I was so impressed. In front of certain pieces, I was literally ‘resonating’. Probably because of what interests me at the moment. It was about violence. Mainly the series about Achilles and Patroclus and those about Commodus really moved me.
You told me that you want to get rid of the ‘marble block’ in a search for freedom. That, and some other things you told me, reminds me of a book by Hermann Hesse, about the encounter between the intellectual Narziss and the artistic Goldmund, also a sculptor. How do you see yourself in that regard?
I believe I’ve read that book at the right age. Of course, we always have both characters in us, but maybe sometimes one takes over. On the one hand, I create something that comes from inside, but there is also another side. I’m here for hours, sometimes working for months on one slab of stone. There are days that I don’t say a word. Certainly, in my performative works, where the aim is to reach a kind of meditative, transcendental state, I am much more the monk than the emotional artist.
Do you have a fixed rhythm?
I do not like busy places and in my limited free time I like to be at home. Reading, drawing, playing or listening to music. I would rather be in my studio day and night actually, but sometimes I have to rest. It’s physically heavy work. In addition, I have to divide my time between my other activities. I teach at the Academy of Antwerp, recently started a doctorate in the arts, am a member of the Young Academy in Brussels, and I often have to travel abroad for my exhibitions and projects. Those things must happen, and it keeps you going steady as an artist, but first of all I’m sculptor. I prefer being in my studio.
Being an artist is not a pastime, it is a luxurious but serious activity that carries responsibilities. It has to be taken seriously.
What are you trying to teach your students?
At the academy I teach ‘portraits’ and ‘stone sculpting’. Especially that last course comes down to hard work. I can teach them relatively little. In the end students have to do it themselves. I can only show them and give small tips. As a teacher I set the bar high. Whatever you do, you have to work hard. Being an artist is not a pastime, it is a luxurious but serious activity that carries responsibilities. It has to be taken seriously. I do not want to discriminate between expressions, anything is possible. It is important that young artists take their freedoms and develop their own language and not be influenced by the teachers too much. Many times I speak with curators and directors of museums and they often contradict each other. Ultimately, you have to decide what you want to do and go for it.
What will your doctorate be about?
It’s a “Doctorate in the Arts” that will develop over the next four years. It is practice-oriented so my artistic research will be emphasized and the PhD will also be mainly conducted in that language. It gives me the chance to be in the studio. As a sculptor you show the same violence as a torturer. My doctorate will deal with violence and beauty and the tension between the two. Removing material as a concept is already violent. If I take something from you, it’s violent. Taking stone away from a block of marble through hammering is quite a violent action. As a sculptor you show the same violence as a torturer. During the doctorate, I will develop and apply new techniques to remove material. Techniques that refer to other realities.
When I saw how Isis broke sculptures, I was appalled. In consequence, I decided to start using their methods for creating images instead of destructing them. For example, I want to drag a block of marble behind a car and see what that causes. It leaves behind traces on the marble and at the same time, I keep adhering to the classic definition of sculpture: to create by removing (material). Such and other similar actions will be developed and documented to investigate the relationship between violence, destruction, and creativity.
A recurring idea in your work is that the world automatically tends to disorder or entropy. What are your thoughts about this today?
I can explain that best with music. An injury or deformation is similar to me to a dissonance. A dissonance occurs when two elements that don’t belong together are put side by side. A dissonance in music arises when notes do not belong together. It creates tension. You need moments of pause to recreate harmony. Harmony is a utopian ideal. However, as music history progresses, those dissonances have become more and more important and have prevailed. Music has become more abstract, and many loose their affinity or starting point with contemporary classical music. I consider this to be a metaphor for the concept of entropy. Like the stars in the universe always accelerating to further disassemble. In my work that translates, for example, in strange physical combinations, like ears beside a mouth, an arm ending in a foot, strange deformities, disorder, tension, blurriness, abstraction. Marble is relatively eternal, but we know that it also will eventually be pulverized. I want to prove that nothing is wrong with that. Learn to accept our finality and appreciate it.
So is working with an ‘eternal’ material an attempt to let go of your existential ‘angst’ of dying?
Disorder, or the metamorphosis to another state is natural. We do not give ourselves over when we say that’s okay. Death is coming anyway. That realization confronts me during the creating process. I try to gradually accept it and do something with it. Ultimately, it is the driving force that engages us all. I work with a material that stays “forever”, while I am aware that also the heritage of ancient civilizations is doomed to disappear. Isis or not. That confronts our existential life questions. History shows that murders and war are part of our nature. We shouldn’t welcome that but accept it as a hard truth and yet aim for a better harmony. Even though it is hopeless. To show this issue, I’m doing it myself, on marble, without too much impact on our world. Marble allows me to do so.
Are you a violent person?
We are all violent. But there are ways to channel this. If I take off material with a hammer and a chisel for hours and hours, I come across a kind of trance, and I enjoy it. That raises questions. Why does a human being do things like that? Sculpting is extremely physically heavy. In winter it’s freezing cold in here, my body and my hands hurt, it’s dusty and dirty, yet I enjoy every moment. I’m not just doing this for the result, I also enjoy the action. My body and my brain are addicted to it. Otherwise, you cannot keep doing it. I can’t just make beautiful statues. Leave that to some other artists and the machines. The question you asked about the new technologies and aura in art leads us to talk about the action and the human motive. Why do you do it?
In your production you choose for slowness, so that you can incorporate personal emotions into the stone. That’s your conceptual choice. A next step in artificial intelligence however is to create a being that will be able to imitate that more and more. Have you seen the “Westworld” series?
Yes. Have you seen the 1970’s film on which the series is based? It is darker, and simpler. You know there are already robots making art in an intuitive way? But A.I. cannot think independently yet. If that ever can, those will be other thoughts than ours. Now more than ever we must keep our humanity.
Interview: Merel Daemen
Revision English text: Gary Leddington
Photography: Tom Peeters
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am originally Iraqi, I grew up in Italy, I have a Dutch passport, and I live in Belgium. So this gives you an idea about my identity crisis. I am also a sculptor and a professor of Sculpture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Since this year I have additionally started working on a PHD in the arts.
What inspires your artwork?
Everything that surrounds us. What interests me most is the human condition. Confronting oneself with death, transience, the violence that we instigate onto one another, the violence of nature. Nature instigates violence onto our heritage for example. Entropy is a theme that is very important to me. That is the theory that everything tends to decay sooner or later, in one way or the other.
Tell us more about the pieces you are currently showcasing at the “Disclosing the Uncanny” exhibition.
I try to incorporate the ideas I have just mentioned into my artwork. It is still not obvious how confrontation with death, with the violence that we see all around us and with entropy can be achieved through figurative sculpture. So I have tried to develop a sculpture language that takes into account all the developments of the human deformations. Coming from the classical sculpture tradition but then going to Goya, Bacon, Picasso and even performance artists. And I am trying to use deformations and strange combinations of body parts in order to talk about the anxieties that we experience. Lately, I have been also developing new methods and ways of working with sculptures to address the topics of violence and mortality. I have been sandblasting and shooting at the sculptures with bullets. I also work with acids. So, actually, I have been ruining the sculptures myself.
Would you describe your work as cynical?
I would describe my work as very serious. It is very heavy work, very straightforward, to the point. I like to show things as they are. But I have never thought of it as cynical.
What is your typical process like when it comes to sculpture? The pieces manifest an interesting relationship between creation and destruction.
They are improvised pieces, most of them. I just start carving, and then I see what happens. But of course, I have a database of images; very violent, strong images. I have broken sculptures as an inspiration, but also everything that implies deformation. Disease, victims of wars, injuries. I am also inspired by other disciplines like music. I love “dissonances” and what they represent. Somehow, I see deformations of body parts just as dissonances in harmony and music. They play with the status quo; the normal, peaceful order of things. I like to add something to the normal order that causes disruption. My work additionally relates to displacement and identity.
But also, if you think about it, sculpture making is in itself very violent. The action entails carving with a heavy hammer and a sharp chisel and hitting a block of marble for hours and hours until you get this beautiful shape out of it. It is a very paradoxical situation. Sometimes I feel like a butcher, obsessed with this action. So, I thought why not apply other techniques that are also violent? The definition of sculpture is removing material from a block of stone. Why not develop new ways of removal that might also refer to other things? Why not shoot the sculpture with bullets? Why not throw it from buildings? This references the practices of ISIS for example. Not only that of course. I do not want to merely produce work in that direction. But what comes out of implementing these different methods is that I am able to address several topics simultaneously while making the overall outcome richer.
You referenced earlier on experiencing an “identity crisis,” and I was wondering whether you think that translates onto your artwork?
Yes, it does. For example, in this exhibition you have faces missing eyes. They are contorted, turned around, upside down. You have many elements in illogical places, as if they are in search of their own place in society or in anatomy.
How do you think your artwork relates to the work of Hanne Friis, the other artist in the exhibition?
It is a great combination. I think it was a very bold curatorial decision. On one hand you have the soft, feminine and colorful and on the other hand you have the hard, aggressive, and maybe masculine. So they really complemented each other.
In your opinion, what is the role of the artist in society?
I think it is making people aware of their situation. The artist should tell you what is wrong with society. Like a philosopher almost.
Which artist has had the greatest influence on your work?
Actually, I get more inspired by different disciplines. I would rather not mention sculptors or painters. I like music a lot. Music is very important to me. And there are a few names. I love John Coltrane, especially in his last period. He was getting very free and spiritual in his work. And he was also addressing topics like anxiety, pain, and the violence of music. There is also Bach, of course. André Tarkovski, Francis Bacon to say a few names..
Can you name one artist from the Middle Eastern contemporary art scene that you find particularly remarkable?
I like Khalid Jarrar, the Palestinian artist. He has this work where he goes to Palestine and takes away concrete from the apartheid wall and then shapes it into other things like a ball, or a teddy bear. It is very interesting how he uses material that already has so much meaning in itself and then makes something else out of it. I also love the work of Iman Qureshi- especially in light of his use of beautiful aesthetic to portray something very violent. In one of his works for example, he draws red flowers on a square in a very strong and beautiful red, but then if you look at the work from a distance it looks like blood. Only when you get really close to it do you realize that what you see are actually flowers.
You have participated in Art Dubai recently. Can you share with us some of your impressions?
I really liked Art Dubai. Not so much for the fair itself- you know, the booths and the galleries- but more because of the discussions that took place around the fair: the global talks, the global art forum, the panel talks.. They are very interesting. People have this perception of an art fair as something very commercial (as a place where you go to buy and go home). But in Dubai you have a real dialogue taking place. There is a lot of knowledge being exchanged between scholars, artists, critics and collectors. It really is on point, especially in this timing with the Middle East in crisis.
Did you find that there was an adequate level of public engagement?
I think that art fairs can be a bit of a bubble. There are usually the same groups of people attending. They are very interesting people; the collectors, the critics, the curators, the directors, the scholars. So if you mean that with public then yes there was enough engagement. I do not know how much engagement there was in terms of the locals, the citizens of Dubai. But that is something you can see everywhere.
Is there anything you dislike about the current state of the art world?
Yes. A lot. And I hope I am not generalizing. But I think that especially in the Western world there is a lack of seriousness. Often, there is no real message. A lot of it is also very elitist. I get sick myself when I read some texts about art written by pseudo intellectuals. You see the same words being constantly repeated; the same difficult, unreadable texts that are made for just a small, specific group of people. At the end you do not know what the artwork is about. You do not find any relation between what you just read about the work, and the work itself. So it becomes very intellectualized. And do not get me wrong, art needs to be intellectualized. But not just for the sake of it. It becomes very elitist, whereas art should be for everybody.
How do you feel about your roots, the cultural differences you experienced in your upbringing and how are these influencing your works.
My parents come from Iraq, a country that I have never visited. It’s very confusing. While I have learned to live with this ambiguous identity, it puts other people at unease. They can’t place me, or anyone else with similar complex roots, in one specific box. People need certainties and clear answers, especially today when issues of safety and security are being capitalised by various institutions and fear has become a motivating agent.
It is an incredible gift to be able to claim affiliation with various cultures.
Sadly, nowadays an ambiguous identity is perceived as a threat, it generates tense situations. This is problematic. Given the relative ease with which people today can travel and start new lives in other parts of the world other than their native countries, a fluid and ambiguous identity is a phenomenon which is bound to increase in time. Until a few years ago, I felt closest to Italy, the country where I was born and spent the first half of my life. But now even that certainty has blurred out. I speak five languages but don’t master any of them entirely. It is a phenomenon that made me question the concept of national identity. I believe that the general need to feel affiliated with one specific country is a limiting concept. Borders suggest the threat of violence. Regardless of the implicit problems, considering myself liberated from feelings of national pride and belonging, I attempt to look at a larger image and reflect on more universal issues shared by humanity as a whole.
The human condition, characterized by violence and decay, is a theme that is taking much of my attention lately.
If unpacked, this interest encompasses various disciplines that range from politics to religion, economy and social sciences.
My first emotions when I looked at your work, were a bit uncomfortable, as It felt so real and familiar, I wanted to touch and feel the cold „flesh“, but the stretches and cuts created a nearly physical pain and shock. If you would describe your work to a blind person, who can only feel them, what would you tell them about your approach, meaning, longing?
The Louvre in Paris has a room full of cast copies of its sculpture collection. The casts can be touched, allowing blind people to “see” the sculptures with their hands. The last time I was there, I noticed a blind man who was gently passing his fingers over the face of a sculpture, examining its idealised features. He was entirely focused, leaning towards the statue, with his mouth open, in awe for being able to connect in such a way with an artwork. It was one of the most moving interactions I have ever seen of a person, blind or not, engaging with a sculpture. I always allow my sculptures to be touched. In contrast to the idealised beauty of classical sculptures, my works are often broken, fragmented, distorted. I believe that the integrity of the human body is not suited anymore to represent the condition of contemporary society and its current state. Instead of referring to a parallel, “platonic” world, where concepts are distilled to perfection, I am more interested in addressing our own reality. And as we know, it is a much more complex and harsh reality.
Lenin once said that ‘the aim is to be more radical than reality’. While Francis Bacon said: ‘What could I do to compete with the horror [of life] that’s going on?’ I’m trying to find the sweet spot in between.
Human endeavour consists mainly of endless attempts to constrain or delay an inevitable entropy. Politics, economy, religion, with all their complex and controversial mechanisms, are all primarily aiming to avoid society’s descent into chaos. Damage control. But the damage is nevertheless clearly visible. Buildings fall apart, infrastructures need to be maintained, deforestation, pollution, and the list go on. Not to mention the damage that is being inflicted on a less detectable level – psychological, environmental, etc. – by less visible agents.
In the works you are referring to, I intended to mention these kinds of damage, directing the attention to the scars as testimonies to suffered injuries, metaphors for more complex discourses. Sculptural portraiture was probably the most important and original contribution of the Romans to the visual arts. In contrast to the Greek ideals of beauty, the Roman Republic introduced a realistic representation of important men, accentuating the asymmetry and all other signs of old age such as wrinkles, loose cheeks, baldness. They perceived these as testimonies to a long life lived in full. Equivalent to experience, wisdom and dignity. What a contrast with today’s fear of ageing, hopelessly countered by drastic surgical attempts.
What feeling and concept would you want to stay with the „viewer”?
Generally speaking, I try to convey a positive message, even though my works are often interpreted as dark and pessimistic. I often refer to the subjective and objective violence, ubiquitous in human conduct. On a larger scale, the same behaviour is also observable in nature. Violence (which at this stage can be perceived as a subjective bias), entropy and decay are inevitable, maybe even essential components of life. The sine qua non to life. By pointing to this certainty, my attitude is one of acceptance, carrying on, trying to make the best of what we have. I firmly believe that the concept of beauty should not be merely limited to a sensory experience. I see beauty whenever an idea is delivered successfully. Musically speaking, a dissonance, which is acoustically unappealing, becomes beautiful when it stands for inevitable setbacks. In fact, it is the only way to adequately address these crucial moments. And by the way, a harmonious resolution is incredibly satisfying when preceded by a dissonance, which makes the latter a necessary ingredient.
You are holding a position as an Associate Professor. Is the changeover from being an artist to a lecturer, a professor and researcher, something that came naturally to you, like a logical thing to do and what do you teach besides technique to your students?
I teach stone carving at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine of Arts. Teaching does not come naturally to me. A lesson takes a lot of effort and preparation. Besides, a teaching position nowadays carries burdens that undermine the original intentions of the noble task of passing knowledge to a younger generation. I am referring to the endless regulations underlying the educational system that puts teachers in a more bureaucratic position than anything else. It is a very sensitive topic, especially when discussing educational policies related to the arts.
Academicism has almost become irrelevant in contemporary art.
Consequently, there is little left to teach that is quantifiable within limits of grades. Since art is one of the few fields where subjectivity and intuition play an essential role. Furthermore, because artists are supposed to adopt an inquisitive attitude towards their environment, questioning and challenging previously set norms, an art academy assumes a paradoxical role. Like parents who attempt to educate their kids according to their standards and beliefs while telling them at the same time to be more rebellious.
Maybe the only thing one can teach nowadays in art academies is precisely this attitude of inquiry and challenge of the status quo. But students learn by imitation, so teachers also have the responsibility to set a valuable example, backed by an attitude of work, curiosity, passion and commitment to one’s profession.
You are exhibiting around the world. Is there a place you feel your work responds or clashes in particular?
Whenever I exhibit in a specific place, I try to adapt to the context of the country, to engage in a dialogue with the local culture. I like presenting alongside permanent displays of museums, like in the case of my solo shows at Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence in 2015 and at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana that just ended. In both cases, the juxtaposition resulted in a synergy that recontextualised both parties and allowed for a different reading than the usual art-historical one. In the first case, twelve of my marble heads were exhibited next to the Medici-Riccardi collection of Greek and Roman portraits.
The “damages” that characterise my sculptures allowed for a new reading of the actual damages suffered by the ancient paintings, now perceived as a sculptural representation of real bruises and scars or as medical pathologies.
In the latter case, my latest series of sculptures were exhibited next to the museum’s collection of Dutch and Flemish masters. Many of the works I presented were thematically informed by Afro-Cuban religious practices of sacrifice while being aesthetically inspired by the selection of the museum. I attempted to make associations between the two, highlighting details within the centuries-old paintings that often go unnoticed. The result was a dynamic exhibition that revitalised the museum’s collection, presenting a dialogue that spoke both to the local community as well as to the contemporary art world.
In 2017 I was invited to a residency in the little town of Birzeit, in the West Bank, to create a sculpture for the inaugural exhibition of the Palestinian Museum. It took me several weeks of research and immersion in the local culture and its difficult condition to come up with the idea that could speak to it. I found the answer in old Jerusalem, a problematic location, worshipped, contended and abused by various communities. The city’s stones being at once the unifying and dividing factor.
The museum exhibitions and the residencies are active approaches that allow for enriching dialogues with other cultures, both in space (Palestine and Cuba) and in time (juxtaposition with ‘older’ art). I am very fond of these interactions. All these experiences made me realise that if this is a clash, this is to be found between the societal fabric of a community and the somewhat “elitist” art world. And within the latter, another clash can be seen between cultural driven art institutions such as museums and biennials and economic driven commercial institutions such as art galleries and fairs. It’s a problematic relation as the conceptual discourses dealt with by cultural establishments are often conflicting with the economic goals of commercial practices. But there are exceptions, as proved by international artists who can tackle problematic themes while being successful in both the cultural and commercial realm.
Tell us a little about Berlin and your exhibition, you will show with Juliette Bartoli, what kind of work did you pick and why?
In a sense, this exhibition is another interlocutory exercise with another visual medium such as painting. Juliette and I owe a lot to the aesthetical depictions of the human body as portrayed by ancient civilisations. Greek and Roman in this specific case. We both apply a similar visual methodology – the fragmentation of the human body – while exploring different topics. Juliette is interested in epistemological theories, especially regarding the structure of language, semiotics and how meaning is formed. Whereas my works tackle themes related to socio-political dynamics informed by the study of violence. Fragmented, but highly aestheticised body parts, become thus symbols, signifiers, that stand for more complex streams of thought that they might look at a first sight reading.
In my case, I will present 18 small marble works divided into several series. The first series consists of eight ex-voto’s, votive offerings in the shape of human body parts. In ancient times, such representations were gifted to various divinities to ask for the healing of a specific body part. A practice that reveals the dominating power apparatus inherent to society and its beliefs.
The ancient custom, to which the contemporary practice of lighting candles in a sanctuary can be traced back, allows me to maintain a link with the traditional depiction of the human body while (literally) detaching a specific part from its original context to address other topics. Another series consists of “defaced” children’s heads. The deletion of all the facial features removes the identity of the portrayed subject, precluding any attempts of recognition. While referencing to general iconoclastic practices, it also confronts the now customary habit of censoring children’s faces on the web to prevent their abuse. Thus alluding to what extent the fear of catastrophic scenarios has entered and commands our daily life.
I recently developed, and interest in calligraphy and letter carving and translated this into a series of stone inscriptions. One is a modified quote from the second Psalm. It is cut in Roman capitals, the character that is usually associated with imperial authority, and it reads Servite in Timore, Exultate cum Tremore”. (Serve in fear, rejoice in tremor). I omitted the word “Deo” (God) to point to the systemic violence driven by fear that underlies more general politics of power. Another inscription reads “Enbide Calco Te” (Envy, I tread on you). It is displayed on the floor of the gallery, like a doormat, and visitors can literally walk on it, thus (very slowly) reshaping the stone with their action and eventually cancelling the message.
The rest is a surprise. Come and see for yourself.
This is your first time exhibiting in Art Dubai. What do you think of the fair?
I really love the fair. I haven’t seen the really big fairs, like Basel and Frieze, but from what I’ve seen, honestly this is one of my favourites. Not only because of the booths but mainly because of the artists talks and the Global Forum. There are some really in-depth theoretical discussions going on.
Why did you choose sculpture as your chosen medium?
I was always attracted to marble. You know my family is a family of painters, mother, father, uncle, they are all painters. So I started drawing and painting when I was a kid. But then since I grew up in Florence, I used to draw the sculptures in the city just to train myself and to have fun. I think the love of sculpture started there. When I decided to study art, I didn’t even have to think about it, I knew I wanted to do sculpture, I didn’t consider painting.
Where do your aesthetic influences come from?
Mainly from Italy. The Renaissance sculptures, which focus on the human anatomy, have been a major influence on me. But again this destructive aspect. it’s more of a theoretical level from what’s happening in Iraq. The situation there is bad. But also the fact that I’m going more towards abstract works as well is a kind of reference to the Islamic tradition of working with abstract art.
The human anatomy is a big part of your work. Why?
I think because growing up in Florence and having my parents who were more classically inclined in painting and of course, sculptures and the Renaissance, I grew up with that idea of the beauty of the human body and the language of the human body. But I wanted to do something with it. That’s why I want to deform it. I like working on the human body as a classic theme but it doesn’t make sense to just make beautiful things. You need to do something with it, either deform it or destroy it with acid or bullets or whatever.
Tell us why you started this method of destroying parts of your pieces.
It’s a fact of nature. Sooner or later everything will be destroyed, no? We are going to die unfortunately and we have to face that fact and not in a negative way, it’s the engine that keeps us going, to create stuff, having the knowledge that all of this will end. Nature will also eventually destroy things with earthquakes and acid rains. I think we as humans are inclined toward violence somehow. Even kids when you see them playing, they make things and break them. At least I’m not destroying other people’s work, I’m doing it with my own work.
Violence and identity are a common theme in your work. Can you explain why?
There is this uneasiness of not knowing where you belong. I just don’t feel at home anywhere and I feel at home everywhere. And I think growing up seeing the images of the war in Iraq as a small kid had an impact. Of course I haven’t lived the war but I’ve seen them through images on TV. As a kid, you already realise there is something horrible happening, parallel to your own life, because I was living in Italy and everything was beautiful, sculpture, art, culture – normal life and parallel to that, you saw the images on TV of Iraq and you knew that your family was there. So there is this parallel between beauty and the whole situation there. I think it’s an attempt to combine those two things, those two realities when they are side to side.
Can you explain your process when creating a work?
I try not to stick too much to my original plan or ideas. The best thing that can happen are mistakes. Because they open up your mind, they face you with new kinds of problems that you may not have had and you develop yourself in searching for a new solution for that problem. It’s like life.
How do you know when a piece is complete?
You know it on an instinct level. It’s done when I have the feeling that there’s nothing I can add to it. My efforts will not include the overall aesthetic or message of the work. But really, it’s on an instinctual level.
Social media is problematic for many artists. How would you describe your relationship with it?
It’s a love and hate relationship. I hate myself every time I post anything, I don’t like to do it actually but I know that the world is on social media, so if you want to communicate what you’re doing, we are a society of imagery, so you need to do it. If you’re ambitious, if you want to be in galleries and fairs and museums and reach collectors, this is one way to do it. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t do it. But it’s also a way of documenting things, how I work, my studio, the progress of pieces. I can understand that’s interesting for some people. Stone carving is a thing of commitment to work, so I don’t think about stopping to take a photo.
Would you describe yourself as an artist?
I prefer to be addressed as sculptor, as opposed to an artist. The term artist is too vague and too many people have abused that term. There is also this issue of the philosophical definition of what is art, and I don’t want to give a definition to that. What I know is I make sculptures. I’m a sculptor. It’s very easy to define that. I work with a block of marble and tools so I can fairly 100% say that I’m a sculptor.
You were born in Rome, but Florence is the city where you had your first contact with the world of art. What does Florence mean to you?
Florence, from that point of view, is very Important because it unconsciously had a tremendous effect on me. Having grown up here, when I was young, I would exercise on my own drawing the city’s statues and visit all its museums. With my parents both being painters, for me it was normal to draw. I loved to draw the statues around town and they greatly influenced.
You are the son of two painters, the nephew of two painters and of another uncle who is a poet, since both your mother and father are painters, two of your uncles are painters and another uncle writes vernacular poetry in Iraqi dialect.
l didn’t know that about my uncle.
Your uncle Ali, on your mother’s side, writes or, used to write vernacular poetry and your other uncle, on your father’s side, works in the theatre. You first chose music and you became a good pianist but then, at a certain point, you made a 180′ degree turnaround and opted for sculpture, choosing a material, marble, which is pretty hard for the hands of a pianist .
Music has always been a passion for me: I grew up playing the piano. I studied the piano for almost ten years. But, at a given point, you must stop and ask yourself: what do you want to do and what are your objectives in life. To be honest, my musical aims were a bit too high to be achieved with my limited talent: I had to really make an effort to only achieve mediocre results. But, as I grew up in a family of painters, for me painting or drawing came naturally, it did not require a technical effort and it all came natural to me. I was always subconsciously aware that it was something natural and easy for me. Then it took me two years to decide to abandon studying the piano, because I didn’t know how it would end up for me. And so, I took this different direction.
You probably know that when your father first came to Rome, he came to study sculpture…
Yes, sculpture, at the Academy with Emilio Greco, if I’m not wrong.
You practically grew up only a short distance from Michelangelo’s Pieta. Many of the sculptures that I’ve seen pictures of seem to be a rough hew growing out of the block marble. Is this by chance or by choice?
No, not at all by chance. It is a choice. As I told you, I used to go practically every day to the Academy Gallery to draw the David and I gradually became much more fascinated with Michelangelo’s Prisoners than with his David, precisely because they were roughly hewn and incomplete. If I have to be honest, the sculptures that you saw were created in order to give a contemporary interpretation of the same theme: the slave, the soul imprisoned or enslaved within the body or matter. I was trying to express myself beyond the material, in contemporary terms. And then there is the theme, which we might talk about later too: the aftermath of the war, of the suffering in Iraq, of my Iraqi past, which is a humanly universal theme.
You experienced your Iraqi past through the stories suffered and told by your parents and your friends, like all young people of your age. But you added an extra element: that of the erring migrant because you are with no fixed abode, we can say. You were born in Rome, then you grew up in Florence, then you went to Belgium, then to the Netherlands, and back to Florence and you travel back and forth from all parts of the world. In this case you are more like your father than your mother. What does it mean to you to be a wanderer?
It means not having a place you can call home, not having a mother-tongue as such to speak with ease and therefore it also means being accustomed to live in a state of uncertainty, which, by the way, is not a flaw. I use this also in my work and my approach to work: I err also when I shape marble. When I start something, I never know where it will end up.
Or, rather, possess all the languages…
Yes, but none entirely. Also possess all cultures, several mindsets, but again, none of them in full. Of course, knowing all these cultures enriches one’s general culture and one’s vision of the world. However, the thing I miss most is not having a home, a symbolic place to come back to. Obviously I feel at home here in Italy, it’s a place I fee l at ease in but I spent half of my life outside so I can’t really say I’m Italian, nor Iraqi, nor Dutch, who knows.
If I were to ask you what Iraq means for you, in very generic terms, because I think all of us have an inner image of Iraq.
Iraq for me is a combination of the Iraq we all know through the TV images, its recent history of dictatorships and wars and, on the other hand, through the stories told by parents, by friends, so very poetic stories about a gorgeous country. This is the country etched in my mind from the stories told my father and mother, by the pictures I saw of their youthful years in the academy: images of a very open, democratic country.
Our generation of Iraqis, the generation of your mother, your father and mine, feel very disappointed by this poetic Iraq now lost forever and never to be recovered. How much influence does this situation and this disappointment, which is no longer only passively transmitted to you as when you were a child, have on your feeling Iraqi?
You perhaps experienced Iraq’s darkest period, while living outside of Iraq. I lived it by seeing all the images of war and absorbed all the disappointment. Iraq for me is my remote country of origin but where I never lived in and I that never saw. I hope to be able to go back there to visit and perhaps also contribute to its cultural change. However, precisely in the light of what we were saying before, I don’t know if in the shoes of an Iraqi, a Westerner or a tourist. This is what remains to be understood.
Hilde Van Canneyt: Hello Athar, you were born in Rome, but grew up in Florence. Influenced by the beauty of the better art gods, you soon began to sketch their world-famous sculptures.
Athar Jaber: It was my favorite pastime. Our house in Florence is 100 meters from the Accademia Gallery, where Michelangelo’s David and the Slaves are exhibited. Every spare moment I had, I went to the museum to observe and draw them. I was there almost every day. But when the queue at the entrance was too long, I went downtown to study the countless statues that decorate the city. This gradually led to my love for sculpture. Not self-evident as my family consists entirely of painters. I started making sculptures relatively late.
HVC: In 2004 you decided to study at the Royal Academy of Antwerp. You graduated with a more than life-size sculpture of 500 kilos made of Carrara marble. This was the starting shot for your Opus 4 series, which ultimately consists of four sculptures. We see realistic / classicist elaborated naked body parts in a twist dance with the raw Carrara marble. You describe it as an inspiration fusion between Michelangelo and Francis Bacon.
AJ: The hours I spent at the Galleria dell’Accademia had a big impact. When I started the series, I wanted to make a contemporary version of Michelangelo’s slaves. The theme is timeless: the mind trapped in a body. But, depending on the zeitgeist, this duality can refer to other relationships: the individual is trapped in a society where laws and rules apply that are alien to his own nature, he is subject to inescapable violence. The reference to Michelangelo and Bacon is flattering, but easy, maybe too easy. Because the first thing that strikes you is that for both artists the body is the expression of these ideas. But they are not the only ones who depict these ideas and we need not limit ourselves to the visual arts: they can also be expressed by dissonances or unresolved cadences in music, ruins of buildings or cities, what remains of a body after an attack…
HVC: You also want to consciously update the tradition of marble cutting, which has not played such a role in recent years. The perfect finishing and sanding of the marble, for example, is also something that is no longer so important in contemporary art.
AJ: On the contrary, you see nowadays that finishing marble statues is taking on maniacal proportions. The images are seldom made by the artists themselves, who know little about this. This is outsourced to specialized firms that often work with the help of modern technologies. There is nothing wrong with this, except that the work is aimed at an end product and is no longer looked at in the intermediate phases, no possible alternatives are considered. Contemporary marble statues today have more in common with industrial design than with sculpture. I believe that with the emergence of new technological developments in 3D drawing and printing, sculpture is in a phase similar to the situation that painting faced when photography was on the rise. Precisely because of these developments, I consider carving the sculptures myself to be a conceptual choice that should not be underestimated, almost performative in nature.
HVC: You make one image per year. Belgian sculptor Heirbaut can only make one or two a year. What wood should sculptors like you be cut from?
AJ: Making a statue yourself in stone takes a long time. Specific to the direct carving, is the method of working directly in stone. Much of the time is spent looking at the piece. This is to make choices with regard to, for example, the general composition, the lines and the light projection. And of course, without losing sight of the content of the work. These choices are very personal and ultimately determine the individuality of a sculptor. Frans Heirbaut was my teacher, and I owe much of what I know and know about sculpting to him. An absolute requirement to practice our profession is a lot of patience. But mainly love for the profession. You could say that I am addicted to cutting: I enjoy striking with a hammer and chisel on a block of stone, the vibrations that run to the arms, the pieces of stone that shoot off all over the room, the rhythm, the sound, the dust … It is an intense experience to do this for hours. Regardless of the result, it doesn’t even have to be there. I am currently working on a series of works that emphasize this aspect of the mere working of a stone
HVC: I am not very comfortable with it, but looking for such a block of marble to cut in, how does that work? Do you go there or go to Carrara yourself?
AJ: Before my first block – I was still a student – I first worked as a waiter for a summer to save money. Then I went to Carrara to find a block of marble that was within my budget. It was a long search, about a week, in the mountains, the quarries, the sawmills. In the end, I almost instinctively chose a beautiful statuario marble that was somewhere on the side, far from the other stacked blocks. It was relatively cheap because it had a large crack, which divided the block into two irregular pieces. At the time I had no idea what I was going to make of it. Ultimately this resulted in the first two images of Opus 4. As with all things, your budget dictates a lot: if you can afford it, go to the quarries to pick a piece of marble straight from the mountain. I don’t have this luxury, but I don’t think it’s that important either. I like to accept limitations and make something with them. In the grooves there are often already cut pieces stacked, ready to be sold. From this I choose the block that appeals to me the most. You look at the quality of the crystals, the color of the marble and whether there are cracks or “hairs” – small sheds. Usually there is also an incomprehensible attraction to a certain block. Call it love at first sight if you want…
HVC: What is your main work material? Do you just go to your studio, as if it were nothing, or do you have to give yourself some courage? Do you have a fixed schedule before you go to your studio or before you start working? I can imagine that you cannot leave so much to chance …
AJ: Again, I have to contradict you: coincidence is very important. I never work with a clear idea of what I want to get out of the block. Usually I start with one piece and the rest will follow by itself. Compare it with a free jazz improvisation. It is an art of responding to coincidences and being open to giving them the space to develop new insights. There are of course also times when I don’t do much for months because I don’t “see” it. A period when my brain must familiarize itself with an aesthetic that I had not foreseen. And so, you keep surprising yourself and growing, both personally and as a sculptor. It is precisely because of the improvising nature of this practice that my state of mind is very important: a book I am reading, a film I saw the night before, the news I read in the newspaper, a conversation, the weather, a hangover … Anything can make a difference to certain choices I make while carving. But this is also true of other aspects of everyday life.
HVC: Do you work alone, or do you have assistants? And do you prefer to work in silence, or can you have some tunes?
AJ: Since I improvise on the stone myself, I can’t use the help of assistants. Every mark I make could be the last one. In that sense the picture is always finished. I have a fascination for unfinished works: Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge, Gogol’s Dead Souls, Orson Welles films, … There is also a fatalistic idea behind this … In addition, the presence of a person limits my freedom. While this is inevitable in everyday life, in my studio I can bend reality to my will and that is why I prefer to work alone. Music, on the other hand, is a very important element that I use as an amplifier of my activity: if I have to do exploratory or intensive work, I like to have something unknown or contemporary, while in the quiet finishing phase, I like to be accompanied by trusted friends: Bach or Beethoven are often welcome.
HVC: Leonardo da Vinci said in 1519: “If mind and hand don’t go together, no art is created.”
AJ: In Leonardo da Vinci’s day there were lively discussions about what art should or should not be and how to make it. They were different times from ours and I dare not compare them or make absolutist statements that rule out other possibilities. If there is one thing the arts teach us, it is that anything is possible.
HVC: By the way, what is your best moment between the idea in your head and the finished sculpture? The moment when you think: “That’s what I’m doing it for.”
AJ: When I make mistakes… then there is a moment when I feel uncomfortable because something didn’t go to plan. A moment of crisis. A solution must be found for this. Often you have to think outside the box to see this error no longer as such, but as an opportunity to develop new ideas. This is a process that can sometimes take months. It is an exploration of the image, but rather of yourself. Finding a solution to these “luxury problems” is an enlightening, almost ecstatic experience. Because you achieve a result that you never imagined. You transcend yourself.
HVC: Besides your Opus 4 series, I also saw three realistic white heads hanging next to each other on your website. The middle head is a man with a beard. I can’t put my finger on it: are they philosophers or…?
AJ: It’s family: my dad and two uncles. Romans used to place busts of family members at the entrance of their home as a reminder of their genealogy, their origins and to remember their past. I don’t want to limit this genealogy to family members, but to extend it to people who have played an important role in shaping who I am today, including friends and teachers. The heads you’ve seen are just sketches for a series of portraits I’m working on right now. The final series will consist of a dozen marble portraits, albeit deformed and modified like the Opus 4 series; a resemblance to the original model will not be the priority. After working with the body for five years, I now want to do something different and then go back to the body. I already have plans that can safely fill the next ten years. Portraiture, a discipline that occupies an important position in art history, seems interesting to me to investigate and interesting to make my own interpretation of it.
HVC: On your website we also see pen drawings, made between 2008 and 2012. They remind me of the drawings of Rafaël, Dürer and “our” George Minne. Do you see an evolution in your drawing over the years?
AJ: Drawing is a language in itself. The more this is practiced, the easier one feels about it. Our existence is marked by a different type of language: “In the beginning was the Word …”. I am not a believer, but we live in a society that has its roots in these verses and that says a lot about our nature, whether religious or not. Our communication is mainly done through words. Even when we are alone, there is a constant stream of words in our brain. But for certain disciplines, such as visual art and music, there is a different language. I also think more in terms of images: when I see something, I save it, in my memory but also in a folder that I hope to publish one day. I use it to make a visual and substantive connection with the other thousands of stored images. That connection sometimes seems far-fetched but remains very clear to me and I have no need to clarify this in words. Unfortunately, it must be done in order to speak to a wider audience. I know it sounds elitist. One of the greatest efforts I must make while teaching is the translation from visual to spoken language. Speaking is a difficult task for me anyway, perhaps because I have never lived in a country long enough to develop and master a perfect sense of language. Here is where drawing takes an important position: for me it is a mindset where I feel more comfortable than thinking with words.
My drawings were much more defined at first than they are now. Then everything had to be clear. Perhaps more out of necessity for myself to determine what I wanted to express. Now that precise determination is no longer necessary. I notice that I am becoming much freer. On the one hand I trust my hand more and allow myself to be surprised by the lines it makes on paper and on the other hand I can better direct these surprises towards the result I want to achieve. I don’t have to finish everything either. And this has its consequences on my images, which are less and less finished. When I think I’ve been able to capture the essence of an image, I stop. Everything else is an afterthought, decoration, and therefore not necessary. Still, I have to admit that I’m not satisfied with the drawings I’m making for the portrait series. I’m still looking. That is why you can only find drawings until 2012 and no further. I make hundreds of drawings a year, but after a rigorous selection, very few remain.
HVC: Your drawings do not serve as a preliminary study – you start directly in the stone. Do you see them as independent (art) works? You also sign them with a stamp, why that idea?
AJ: They are more studies of a certain theme, feeling, a certain atmosphere. They cannot be literally translated into stone. That is impossible and uninteresting. The whole search in stone would be lost. I draw in the evening and at night, as processing of certain problems that I encountered in the stone statues during the day. They are also improvisations, but on paper, to support the cutting process. It is impossible to work day and night in the studio, even physically, but it is important to stay in a certain train of thought, also outside the studio. Drawing makes this possible. For these reasons, I personally don’t see them as independent works, but the public does …
On the one hand, the stamp appears as an alternative to fetishism a signature. The whole drawing is a signature in itself, I do not understand the need to add my own name in handwriting underneath. If I have to, for the market, I prefer a neutral stamp. It is also a nod to the stamps that can often be seen in old master drawings of certain collections: a strange element that fascinates me.
HVC: What is your relationship modeling versus cutting in stone?
AJ: I don’t like to model clay. It’s too soft, shapeless, almost characterless. You can make anything with it, it offers no resistance. For some, this is precisely the quality of clay, and I am convinced it can be. But I don’t like that. Against this, stone also has a broader sculptural and cultural legacy that I like to refer to.
HVC: Is painting for you?
AJ: My family consists mostly of painters. When I was a kid, I was surrounded by people who did it on a professional level: my mom, my dad, two uncles and all their friends. Painting seemed natural to me and I often did it as a game. Over time, I became more attracted to sculpture, perhaps precisely because painting was so common. Now that I can think about it rationally, I am intrigued by the greater connection to reality that sculpture has over painting. Sculptures take up a place in space and as a result take that away from us: our body is confronted with this. See it as a restriction on our freedom, a threat that we take into account. Where there used to be nothing there is now something we have to walk around. In that sense, making and showing an image is a violent action, separate from what is depicted and its usefulness. Sculptures therefore have a concrete impact on our physical reality, they are part of it.
HVC: Do you have accommodation at a gallery? Seems difficult, because in addition to bringing good art, their main goal is usually to sell art. But your work is not made and sold like hot cakes, I suspect.
AJ: I work in a traditional way, with as little use of power tools as possible and completely without the help of pneumatic tools. It’s a slow, time consuming, intensive process. As a result, the price of the sculptures is relatively high and the production low: on average, I make one sculpture a year. Due to these circumstances, I have not yet come across a gallery willing to support me in this process. That is why I often exhibit outside the commercial sector: more in a private circle, at someone’s home, or at associations and cultural institutions, such as at the moment in the Academia Belgica in Rome. Teaching at the academy of Antwerp allows me to maintain this luxury position without compromising my work.
HVC: Can you tell us something about your latest exhibition “Terrible beauty” in the green marble hall of the Academia Belgica in Rome? Have you chosen the title yourself?
AJ: It is a nice coincidence that “Terribile Bellezza”, the Italian title of the exhibition, runs almost simultaneously with the Italian film “La Grande Bellezza”, which also has Rome as a background. The title was chosen by art historian Johan Pas for the text he devised especially for this exhibition. I only made the link with the film in Rome and have not yet been able to ask him whether that was done on purpose.
For me this is an important exhibition. It’s the first in Italy, and then also in my hometown. A return to the origins. Many of the statues I refer to are preserved in this city. The statue on display there (Opus 4 No. 2), for example, is partly inspired by “The Dying Gaul” which is in the Capitoline Museums and the “Torso belvedere” in the Vatican Museums. The perception of a work changes drastically depending on where it is presented. In Rome, marble statues and ruins are part of everyday reality and such an image is viewed and experienced differently than, for example, here in Belgium. For example, nobody in Rome thinks it’s so special that I work in marble. It may be necessary to ignore this sensational aspect, so that the essence of the image can come into its own.
HVC: Do you have a plan B for when you could no longer cut the stone?
AJ: I often think about that: “What if something happens that prevents me from cutting?” But it’s an equally fatalistic question like “What if I die tomorrow?” We’ll see then…
HVC: If you could travel back in time, to which art or time period would you like to return? (Can we guess the answer?)
AJ: Why would I want to go back in time? Every era has its beauty and misery. The challenge remains to process these properties and turn them into something. Regardless of the period. I believe we can develop our potential qualities much better in our time. There may be more competition, but also a lot more knowledge. It is important not to think in the short term and not lose sight of the larger context. We all have limitations; there is no point in ignoring or denying them. In order to deal with that, we must first accept them. Having said this, to avoid any misunderstanding, let me make it clear that I am a pessimist.
HVC: Could you, as in the past, make a sculpture on commission?
AJ: Yes. As long as the client trusts me and gives me the freedom to realize my interpretation. Coincidentally, I am currently working on a small assignment in which I was given carte blanche in all respects. Only a number of thematic guidelines are indicated. Commissioned work is not something of the past alone. Many commissioned works are still being done. New opera or theater productions, public buildings, monuments and more. There is nothing wrong with this, on the contrary, but it is important that a situation is created in which the requested artist can maintain his or her integrity.
HVC: What is the social relevance of your work?
AJ: It is not in the sense of world improvement or a plea for certain political beliefs. For me art should not serve other ideals. By the way, I don’t like the word art because I can’t define it. But certain works transcend political or social messages and refer to higher, more universal moral values. Nor do I pretend to deliver an active message. What I am trying to do is to think about the human condition without criticizing or praising it and transferring the (temporary) result of this reflection into sculptures.
Rodin once said that the social value of an artist that should not be underestimated is the fact that he has a great love for his profession and should therefore serve as an example. If everyone chooses the trade they love, we would probably live in a better world.
HVC: Which Belgian sculptors do you think are strong?
AJ: Next week there will be the opening in Mechelen of an exhibition for the Ernest Albert Prize, for which I have been nominated, together with 14 other sculptors. I am really looking forward to exhibiting with people whom I have respected for years. Between all those names there is an Italian, a Japanese and an Arabic name. Does that mean they are also Belgian? It is of course the case that every country has certain social characteristics that shape the person and, in that sense,, we can speak of a national identity. However, we live in a time of globalization, where all borders are opened up as well as where awareness of other social truths from distant or neighboring countries reach us just as quickly. It seems strange to me to still speak of nationalities. Maybe because I no longer really feel connected to a country: I have Iraqi parents but have never been to the country. I was born in Italy and grew up there until I was sixteen, with short trips to Yemen and Moscow. After that I lived in the Netherlands for six years and now, I’ve been in Belgium for ten years. Am I Iraqi, Italian, Dutch or Belgian? I don’t know and probably never will. Sometimes I long to belong to a country. It makes everything simpler. But on the other hand, I now experience myself that it is not important which passport someone has. As humans, we all share the same condition.