27.01.2024 – 09.03.2024

Athena, a metaphor for emancipation, freedom and shared values

On January 15, 2003, a sea of ​​flames engulfed the building of the GO! Royal Athenaeum on the Rooseveltplaats in Antwerp. The school of the Flemish Community has existed for almost two centuries, because it was founded in 1807 by Napoleon. The main wing and the banquet hall on the first floor were severely damaged by the fire. The statue of the enthroned Athena on top of the roof had to be removed.

Today it's GO! Atheneum is still a community school that promotes universal, humanistic values, of which emancipation, freedom and shared values ​​come first. Director Karin Heremans has led the school with commitment and passion since 2001 and builds many bridges to society. She is also an ambassador and education working group leader of the Radicalization Awareness Network Europe. In 2011, teachers Rudi Audiens and Mohammed Filali introduced GO! Atheneum Antwerp Athena-syntax was founded, a school program that uses art in the development of creative expression, artistic education and intercultural dialogue among young people. Artist Luc Tuymans is an important ambassador of Athena syntax and created a new permanent in situ work in the renovated Hall AthenA (the former banquet hall): Allegory of doubt, in dialogue with a preserved original mural, Allegory of fame. Artists such as Lawrence Weiner, Ricardo Brey, Pavel Buchler and Wim Cuyvers were also invited by the non-profit organization to intervene in the building and with the students of the GO! Atheneum Antwerp to work together.

In that context, finding a worthy successor to the enthroned Athena statue, which has been in the basement of the school since the fire, is a logical issue. It is not difficult to imagine that sculptor Nadia Naveau was the ideal artist for this assignment. Her work has always been fueled by cross-pollination between the past and present. She is inspired by art historical examples, from archaeological museums, to baroque visual language, to figures from popular media. After twenty years, the roof of the school will once again be crowned by a work of art that translates its values.

According to Greek mythology, Athena was born from the head of her father Zeus. The supreme god experienced terrible headaches for a long time, which seemed impossible to cure. The pain drove him so far that he ordered the titan Prometheus to split his head with an ax specially made by Hephaestus. Surprise everyone, when a woman appeared from Zeus' split head, in full armor, including helmet, spear, armor and shield, and accompanied by an owl and a snake. All this turned out to be manufactured by her mother, the titan Metis, who was swallowed by Zeus after their affair.

Athena radiates leadership, good governance and justice. She represents strategy, intelligence and wisdom. She is also the goddess of beauty and art – in the sense of aesthetic ideals – and of love – in the sense of loyalty. In short, a queen among the gods.

Athena has been depicted many times throughout art history. Well-known examples are the statue in the Greek Parthenon from the fifth century BC (a reduced reproduction can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens) and the bas-relief showing Athena leaning thoughtfully (or in some descriptions mourning) on ​​her spear (c. 460 BC, preserved in the Acropolis Museum). In the neoclassical period, people often look back to antique models. The goddess also found her way into Western arts in later centuries, for example in paintings by Botticelli (1482), Rembrandt (ca. 1657), David (1771) and Klimt (1898).

As always, Nadia Naveau found inspiration in her inexhaustible collection of newspaper clippings, copies and photos. Collages and sketches from that existing material occupy an important place in the artistic thought process. In a sense, every sculpture by her hand is a collage – a composition of elements that contradict and enrich each other. She places classical images of Athena next to modern painting and photographs of, for example, Disney characters and Gilles de Binches - a type of carnival figure from Belgian folklore. Elements of previous works always seep into new images, or are reflected in various references.

Naveaus Athena's helmet takes up a large part of the face, acting as a mask. The artist has long had a great fascination with masks, because of the layered meaning they can have. In this case, it also ensures that the face does not radiate a pronounced gender. The spheres on top of the helmet could have evolved into plumes during the modeling process, but ultimately remained an abstract reference - both to the plumes of the Gilles de Binche and to Roman centurion helmets, but possibly also reminiscent of cartoonish or animated equivalents. They mainly form a playful, abstract element, typical of Naveau; and also find a certain reflection in the braid that appears discreetly but decisively from under the helmet. Another mask also appears in the Athena statue. Her shield is a reference to a work that Naveau made for the Bruges Triennial in 2022, where she hung seven silver-colored masks with ribbons along the Canals.

Athena's head is out of proportion to the rest of her body. A sculpture that will be placed at a height of twenty-six meters requires a different perspective: after all, the sculpture will never be observed head-on, but only from a frog's perspective by passers-by in the streets. Many statues placed at a great height would appear frontally out of proportion. A good example is Michelangelo's David (1501-1504), who looked out over Florence from a high pedestal: from up close, his head and hands seem much too big for his body, but from below these crucial elements can be clearly observed thanks to the sculptural perspective. become.

Naveau found even more inspiration in the eighteenth century, when hairstyles were important and decadent. Drawings by Henry Fuseli and others and etchings from some of the earliest fashion magazines show how the hair literally and figuratively towered above the rest of the body and clothing. One cartoon even suggests that an extremely complicated hairstyle with socks and shoes is sufficient: no other clothing is necessary.

Her face may not show any individual facial features, but her posture exudes tons of character. Today's Athena has none of the rather stiff, reserved pose of her predecessor. She looks out over the city nonchalantly, with her legs crossed and one arm over the back of her chair, with complete confidence and relaxation. It is a figure that feels perfectly at home in today's society.


The figure's nonchalant, slightly stooped posture is reminiscent of seated characters in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), one of Naveau's greatest inspirations. His influence on this new Athena also seeps through in the abstraction and emptiness of the face, in the oval shape of the head and even in the use of color.

She sits enthroned on a simple chair, modeled after one that stood in the artist's studio. It is a reference to a classical sculpture from her wealth of collected photocopies, but at the same time it also appeared in earlier works by Naveau, for example in Funny Five Minutes, Goofin' Around, in which it plays a formal rather than a supporting role.

The choice not to mount the statue on a traditional pedestal, but to place it directly on the roof platform, is a very conscious one. The pedestal is of undeniable importance within sculpture and can also consolidate (lift) a work as 'art'. It is historically a condition to show sculpture. Naveau has always played with this fact, in the past for example by creating pedestals of different heights and shapes, or by making a sculpture that consists of an assembly of pedestals. In any case, Athena towers over the Rooseveltplaats: the school is her pedestal and at the same time she completely merges with it.

A very recognizable and common motif in Naveau's work is the Disney-like hand/mitten. This makes both of Athena's hands seem a bit out of proportion, but above all they add a playful factor to the whole. Similar hands are present in works such as Funny Five Minutes, Goofin' Around, in which it is the hand of Disney's Goofy or in Crazy Diamond, in which the hand forms a crown, but also in All Things Must Pass, where the same chair also appears ( all from 2018). In the fountain (the first) that Naveau created for her solo exhibition in De Warande in 2021, the same hand supports a touching sleeping figure.

The commedia dell'arte is also an important inspiration for Naveau, because of the playfulness and ambiguity of the masked characters. In terms of pattern, Athena's jacket is reminiscent of the Millet jackets popular in the 1980s (again, a reference that often appears in her work), but in terms of colors it is reminiscent of a harlequin. The combination of white and blue in the clothing can also be a subtle reference to a school uniform, but it is the brighter details that stand out most beautifully against the daily changing backdrop of the sky above Antwerp.

Naveau has made large sculptures before, but this scale is something different: the sculpture is more than three meters high and the final result in bronze weighs just over a ton. Images from the documentary that Jess De Gruyter recorded about the making process show how the artist approaches the sculpting of this titanic work on a scaffold, from beating the clay around the metal skeleton to adding details.

She sketches in the clay. During the sculpting process, new associations and ideas emerge, which give direction to the image. This method represents an additional challenge for creating a commissioned work, because although several designs precede the sculpting process, the final result can never be an exact translation of a predetermined plan.

Sketches, collages, paintings and small models reflect the visual thinking process. The sculpted clay becomes a bronze statue using the lost wax method. First a rubber positive is made, into which the wax is brushed. That version will be equipped with sprues and a ceramic layer. The wax is melted from the casting tree at high temperatures, leaving the ceramic mold, into which the bronze is poured via the same casting channels. The different bronze pieces are welded together and finally the artist applies the patina and finally the color.

On January 14, 2024, twenty-one years after the fire in the Athenaeum, the new Athena was festively inaugurated on top of the roof of the school. A work of art in public space is never completely uncontested. It must confront the public directly. It can never please everyone, but ideally it should try to accommodate everyone in society. In this case, the image of Athena is a symbol and means of communication of the school, but at the same time a translation of values ​​that transcend the school context. What makes a society? On which pillars is an (ideal) society based? Where do different cultures, religions, backgrounds, worlds, languages, etc. find each other? Based on their humanistic foundations, GO! Royal Athenaeum Antwerp and Athena-syntax values ​​such as emancipation, freedom and shared values ​​come first; universal shared values ​​that the mythological Athena represents on a conceptual level. Naveau's statue translates the same philosophy in a contemporary and visual way – and not simply through literal references to the Greek goddess or the former statue on the Athenaeum roof.

In addition to the helmet and shield, the knee pads and collar also refer somewhat to the armor of the mythological Athena, but it is remarkable that the contemporary version does not carry any effective weapons - it is protected, but not expected in the to attack. True to her characteristic method, Naveau works her way through a multitude of influences and references, towards a new accessible and generous Athena, which sits enthroned above the school and in the middle of the city from an essential abstraction and multi-layered identity.


Text by Tamara Beheydt