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Finished at last: an ode to freedom

After a gestation period lasting twelve years, on 13 March the artwork by Adam Uriel adorning the spiral staircase in the Academy Building was finally unveiled. It is a contemporary variation on the drawings by Victor de Stuers, dating from 1865, that start at the lower end of the staircase.

Unveiling the artwork by Adam Uriel
Willem Otterspeer was Adam Uriel’s supervisor

When an extensive restoration of the Academy Building started in 2006, one of the ideas that was put forward was to have a contemporary variant of the series of drawings by Victor de Stuers adorning the walls of the spiral staircase in the Academy Building; student De Stuers had left the walls between the first and second floors untouched. His work depicts the story of a Leiden student in a series of four scenes.

in 2008, a competition was held among the students of the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, a partner institution of Leiden University, to decide who would continue De Stuers work. The winner was 24-year-old Adam Uriel, who won with flying colours and was invited to put his design into practice. The first two wall paintings were in place in no time; it took Uriel just fifteen days to complete them. But that was in 2008.

Developing artist

Twelve years later, in 2020, the question is why the artwork took so long to complete. University historian Emeritus Professor Willem Otterspeer was Uriel ‘s supervisor throughout the period. In his speech at the unveiling ceremony, he commented that Uriel was a young artist who was still developing, and that he kept coming up with new ideas. The artist himself agreed with this explanation, but also cited more prosaic reasons: he had to graduate, and after that earn an income. Uriel spent a lot of time in Tel Aviv, where he works as an artist and teaches drawing at two schools.

Unveiling of the artwork by Adam Uriel
The mosaic. The white area shows figures kissing.

The scenes

Uriel shows the drawings to the small group present at the unveiling. His series differs from that of De Stuers in that it runs upwards, while the original runs downwards.

Scene 1. The first two drawings are in monochrome and are reminiscent of the drawings by De Stuers. The key figure in these scenes is again a child – in this case a daughter – leaving her parents to come and study in Leiden. Uriel explains that his student is international and female, choices that clearly place her in the present day.

Scene 2. The student is shown in a tram, reading a book. This drawing refers on the one hand to Minerva, goddess of wisdom, who can be seen in the University logo holding a book. On the other hand, Uriel goes on to explain, there are the temptations of the life of freedom, symbolised by the tram.

The first two scenes were made with washes of black ink. Uriel prepared ten trays containing water and dripped ink into them, increasing in intensity, so that he ended up with ten different black/grey hues. This is what he used to make the drawings.

Scene 3. The series now changes completely. Uriel explained that he painted the wall black for this scene but then realised that he had simply had enough of black and white. So, he gave his creativity free rein; the artwork created itself. It became a mosaic of colourful and white touches, offset by areas of relief, achieved by applying fragments of coloured glass. In the white area, male and female heads can be discerned. ‘What I see in this scene is a kiss,’ he says. ‘It symbolises the physical exploration of one another that is so much a part of our student years.’

Unveiling of the artwork by Adam Uriel
The fourth scene shows a naked woman with Bastion of Liberty painted on her upper body. To her right, one of the Pussy Riot singers can be seen.

Scene 4. Over the next few years, Uriel became fascinated by the concept of freedom. At that time in Russia, the members of Pussy Riot, a feminist, political punk rock band, were arrested. In protest against the re-election of President Putin and the meshing of the secular Russian state and the orthodox church, three members of the band demonstrated during a service of the orthodox church. This prompted Uriel to include images of these women – complete with guitars – on the walls of the staircase. It is also a tribute to Aliaa Elmahdy,, a young, militant Egyptian woman who, in protest against her country’s strict regime, posted a naked photo of herself on Twitter. She subsequently had to flee to Sweden. ‘We need to understand just how precious our freedom is,’ Uriel says. ‘Talking about the present-day challenges to freedom when you’re in the Netherlands is like talking about the North Pole while sitting in the tropics.’

The final figure in this scene is a naked women with ‘Bastion of Liberty’ painted on her upper body. This is a very literal rendering of the University motto, but it is also a reference to Aliaa Elmahdy, as well as to the Dutch Dolle Minas. This was a group in the early 1970s that stood up for female rights and held demonstrations bearing the text ‘Boss of your own belly’ on their stomachs. This figure is also a reference to the freedom that students at university have to determine their own future direction.

Scenes 3 and 4 are worked in egg tempura, a technique that uses egg yolk to bind the pigments. ‘That gives you very bright colours,’ Uriel explains.

Unveiling the artwork by Adam Uriel
Adam Uriel talking animatedly

History of freedom

Uriel’s speech showed that he had made a serious study of the history of Leiden University, particularly the history of liberty at the University. He made it clear that the concept of liberty was very different in 1574 than today. At the time the University was founded, liberty primarily meant being free from the yoke of the Spanish and the Catholic church, so that people were free to practise the Protestant faith. But it also meant being free to sail the seas to the East Indies to engage in heavy-handed trading there, but also to Africa to acquire slaves for the slave trade. Uriel commented that, ‘Luckily, freedom today is much more the freedom to seek and speak the truth.’

Artworks that took a long time to complete

Uriel discovered, as he said in his speech, that he was in good company in terms of taking a long time to complete a single work of art: Leonardo da Vinci took seventeen years to complete the Mona Lisa and Rodin even toiled for 37 years on The Gates of Hell. How did Otterspeer cope with his ‘slow’ artist? ‘He remained positive throughout,’ Uriel explained. ‘He always said, for example, that we would have a big party once the artwork was finished.’

And they did.

The drawings by both Victor de Stuers and Adam Uriel can generally be viewed if visitors contact the reception desk in the Academy Building. A phone call in advance is even better: 071 527 12 10.

Text: Corine Hendriks
Photos: Melissa Schriek
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