Among the activities carried out during the Belgian Culture Week in Havana, Ofrendas stands out , a personal exhibition by the sculptor Athar Jaber. Curated by Oscar Antuña, the exhibition dialogues with the permanent exhibition of flamenco painting currently exhibited on the fifth level of the Universal Art Building of the National Museum of Fine Arts (MNBA), which constitutes a sui generis proposal in our most current exhibition panorama.
Of Iraqi origin, nationalized Dutch and trained in Italy and Belgium, where he resides, Athar Jaber is a notable architect of marble. It is not for nothing that he works as a sculpture professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Offerings, his first exhibition in Cuba, includes 27 small and medium-sized pieces made with Carrara marble. Some, specially conceived for the occasion, are based on iconographic elements present in MNBA’s collection of Flemish painting; Others, already existing, were museum-imaged in close connection with pieces from said art gallery, in the manner of the old art galleries that mixed paintings and sculptures. The nomadic life of the creator himself serves as the inspiration for the exhibition, which focuses on the processes of geographical circulation of art, as well as on the physical and symbolic rituals that catapult objects to the status of artistic work or turn them into culturally significant artifacts for a specific cultural group.
The classical formation of Athar Jaber jumps out in the exquisite treatment of marble, returning a beautiful set of unfinished pieces, mutilated or abused by weathering and human interference. In the first place we find the Ex Votos series (2018), composed of human eyes, mouths, ears and limbs that refer us to the figurines placed by the devotees on altars and pilgrimage sites to guarantee bodily healing through sympathetic magic. In this section, Breast and Skull stand out . The first establishes ties with a Holy Family, made in the first quarter of the 16th century, which refers us to the Galactotrofusa, a Marian invocation centered on the act of breastfeeding. Athar made a spherical female breast with multiple areoles, perhaps a symbol of the universal character that the Catholic Church grants to the Virgin as Mother and Queen of all human beings.
The other votive offering is inspired by a skull that appears in Mary Magdalene, piece of the same date, attributed to the Master of the Female Half Figures. It is common to find in the iconographic programs of this Catholic saint a skull that symbolizes the transience of existence and the renunciation of worldly life and earthly pleasures. Jaber was inspired by this element to make an ovoidal object that resembles a human skull, even reproducing its characteristic sutures, which clearly shows the technical mastery achieved by the young sculptor.
The ritual constitutes one of the topics addressed in Offerings . Works as Anointed Stone they were subjected to “consecration” processes that reproduce the mystical-religious algorithms carried out by human beings to legitimize or sacripotentiate significant objects within their imaginary. From the Greek omphalon, the navel of the World according to the Hellenic worldview, to the Cuban Elegguá, all cultures worship their stones, and this is reflected by Jaber in pieces of marble that he soaks with milk, blood, honey or macerated herbs. These processes are duly illustrated through audiovisuals, the projection of which also shares space with Flemish paintings, which adds another note of contemporaneity to the collection and illustrates some of the working mechanisms used by the artist.
In fact, the preservation and exhibition of sculptures in museum spaces implies a process of sacralization, stripped of all religious character, which constitutes the essence of the museum. Said selection and conservation algorithms were reflected in the Preserved marble pieces ; Black, gold and red ; and empty, made up of rock fragments that the artist covered with gold leaf, preserved in large glass jars, as if they were fruits in syrup, or vacuum packed, giving them an ironic “edible” character. It seems that we can buy them in a supermarket and consume as we please. Here is a clear allegory about the current processes of legitimation, socialization and consumption of art subjected to the commercial laws of supply and demand.
Finally, I draw attention to the piece Cabeza baleada : painful reference to the mistreatment and depredation suffered by artistic heritage during war conflicts. In fact, this work, which in the exhibition appears accompanied by another video where his execution is shown, was inspired by the attack perpetrated during 2015 by the Islamic State on the Mosul Museum and the Museum of the Black Gate in Nineveh, Iraq.
Likewise, the sample includes two stelae: in the first there is a fragment of Psalm II, relative to King David, Yahweh’s anointed. The other reproduces the inscription Inbide calco te , translatable into Spanish as “Envious, I step on you”: an anthropopaic phrase present in a famous mosaic, featuring a dolphin devouring an octopus, which can now be seen in the Roman Tavern of Pescivendoli. The artist himself has called the latter “mat”, alluding to the original function that said mosaic fulfilled in the context where it was placed.
Offerings is an ideal opportunity to get in touch with the work of a young sculptor whose work combines conceptual density and technical mastery. Its museographic, suggestive and novel conception offers an interactive and desecrated (but not disrespectful) vision of the museum, seen here as a living, dynamic space, connected with contemporary proposals that pay tribute to tradition. As I went through the exhibition, I had in mind a maxim of Adolfo Colombres that I allow myself to paraphrase: Time softens the hard and hardens the soft. In other words, only Time gives the final consistency of things; only he shapes the true face of art. Athar Jaber has studied and understands this process and has masterfully reflected it in his beautiful sculptures.