“The Man from Mars”
Omar Thek-Zeroual. Moroccan. 1990-
Artists in exile may be painters, dancers or writers, but they share a unique set of challenges. L’atelier des artistes en exil in Paris was founded to address the needs of refugee artists seeking asylum in France.
L’atelier des artistes en exil was founded in 2017 by Judith Depaule and Ariel Cypel, in response to the plight of Syrian refugees and the growing migration crisis. The 1,100-square-meter studio in the center of Paris offers space for a range of artistic practices and fosters cross-cultural collaboration. The institution also offers housing support, language instruction, and other support for artists.
Lalita Clozel: Why did you decide to help refugee artists?
Ariel Cypel: Judith [Depaule] and I were running a theater that was on the verge of shutting down. A theater set is a place where you defend utopia — a vision of a different world. If you defend the possibility of a different world while being indifferent, then you are talking the talk without walking the walk. In 2015, we called for all French cultural spaces to begin hosting artists. We housed four people in our theater for two years, until the theater closed.
In the meantime, we organized a festival called “Syria Peril,” which allowed us to meet many more artists with refugee status. We realized that they faced difficulties because they were migrants: no professional network, language issues, a lack of working spaces. We decided that we were going to open a place devoted to artists in exile.
We started in an empty space. We didn’t even have a table or a chair, so we had to get everything ourselves. We appealed to the cultural community. We solicited donations for artistic material.
The project worked so well because we met two key needs: for one, we provided something needed by many migrants and asylum seekers living in Paris — because among thousands of migrants, there were quite a few artists. Suddenly, a place was open specifically for artists in this community of displaced persons. And there is no other place quite like it.
Secondly, we also met an institutional need. At the time, [former cultural minister] Françoise Nyssen was telling the cultural world, “you must do something for these migrants.” From the point of view of the city of Paris, and of the Ministry of Culture in particular, L’atelier des artistes was a project put together by folks they already knew, since Judith and I have been working in the cultural world for a long time. This project and space was dedicated to artists in exile. So we had the support of the institutions as soon as we started.
An artist who finds a space where they can work also finds themselves as an artist.
LC: Do you see a conflict between the support you have received from French institutions and the government’s immigration policies?
AC: I think that from the government’s point of view, there is a contradiction between a generally hostile policy towards migrants and asylum seekers and the French desire to maintain its place in the cultural world. The two don’t really go hand in hand, however.
Moreover, there has been a blatant surrender to the ideas of the extreme right. Politicians are convinced that if they enact policies that are favorable to migrants, they will pay for it at the polls. So they adopt the position promoted by the far right — that migrants are a problem, rather than an opportunity. This strategy doesn’t work. The right gets closer and closer to power every year.
We don’t say there is a migrant crisis. We say there is a hospitality crisis. In France, there are 100,000 to 120,000 asylum requests per year. In a country of 70 million people, that’s a joke. This is a politicized issue that is not anchored in reality.
LC: What kind of refugees are you seeing? Are they here for political, social, economic, or other reasons?
AC: Exile basically means “someone who can’t go home.” It means someone who is in danger if they go back to their home country. If you limit yourself to legal definitions, you have to take into account that the definitions constantly change. There have been ten laws on exiles and immigrants in as many years, each more restrictive than the next.
In our workshop, we try as much as possible to address each artist’s individual needs. The artists we work with are far from home, often alone, and in trying circumstances.
Emerging artists have particular needs. I believe seven of our artists have joined France’s École Nationale des Beaux-Arts. “I’m 24-years-old, I did three years of the Fine Arts School in Damascus, but I didn’t finish my studies because of the war. Now I must finish it.” That’s an emerging artist.
Established artists no longer need to prove themselves as artists, but they don’t have networks here and they don’t want to rely solely on community networks. They want to meet agents, people who can buy their work, and people who can attend their concerts.
You have artists in circumstances so precarious that their art falls by the wayside; emergencies need to be handled before any artistic endeavor. That process might take a year or two, which can create some issues.
I’ll give you an example. We host a French class. One of our artists waited two years for the French administration to tell him he had obtained exile status. This artist had the sword of Damocles hanging above his head for two years, because he didn’t know whether they were going to let him stay or not. The stress made it impossible for him to learn French. He simply couldn’t. But now, he’s progressing—he is learning French again.
LC: With all the obstacles they are facing, do some artists find it difficult to rekindle their creative spark?
AC: I wouldn’t put it that way. The artists who come here in general have this vital need to reconnect with their art. But it’s true that on their path there are some complicated moments, of discouragement, of fatigue, of questioning, which can slow them down. We are here to help them move forward.
We have an artist who was finishing a piece here while his child remained behind in his country of origin. And now that his child should be able to join him, he’ll be able to see his child for the first time in four years. He tells us, “I can’t concentrate anymore.” Well, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate either. Obviously, the conditions that they live in, and exile itself, has an influence on their work.
LC: Do you think art can also help them in their struggle?
AC: We think that an artist becomes an artist because they have this deep-rooted need to create. Being an artist is a personal necessity. Regardless of the medium, artists are the people who have this urge to express themselves. Being able to practice their art again also means reconnecting with who they are.
We think that an artist becomes an artist because they have this deep-rooted need to create. Being an artist is a personal necessity.
I have several examples of people who were in states of alarming psychological distress. Once they got back to practicing their art, they weren’t the same anymore. For example, one artist who ordinarily stutters stops when she sings. All of a sudden they become themselves again and this helps their art. Artists in France are often navel-gazers. It feels good to see artists who are embodying these real fights and allowing us to see the world through their eyes.
LC: Which artistic media does your workshop support?
AC: We support all artistic disciplines including theater, dance, cinema, song, music, performance art, fine art, video, animation, design, sewing. We have 250 artists from all disciplinary fields, representing about forty-five different nationalities.
LC: Why do artists need a studio to create?
AC: First, not all artists need a studio. We have two types of studios. We have individual studios assigned for fine arts practitioners — sculptors, painters, silkscreen printers, photographers, filmmakers, writers. We also have rooms that are dedicated to collective arts: dance, music, theater. The performance spaces are booked ahead of time. Because they are all in one building different practices can come together. An artist who finds a space where they can work also finds themselves as an artist.
LC: How do you select the artists?
AC: One of the first artists we hosted had stopped painting for seven years. It forced us to make a choice. We decided that there must be no time limit to their stay. We do not say: “This is a one-month, one-week, or three-month residency.” Here, you are in residence until the moment when you are doing so well professionally that you can say, “I am letting someone else have my spot.”
The question of success is subjective. Who decides when someone is successful professionally and no longer needs assistance? Some people need more time than others.
The place is free. We do not have a formal contract with the artists. We have a moral contract with them. The artists do what they want, leave when they want to leave, sign on with whomever they like. They owe us nothing other than what they feel they owe us as part of this moral contract.
We are constantly overwhelmed. You do what you can with what you have. We might say, “You can work here from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and you can work here from 7 p.m. to midnight.” Sometimes, you have to wait a bit to get to your own workshop, but we try not to refuse anyone.
LC: How do you finance the workshop?
AC: We try to distribute almost all the private money that we receive to artists and earmark public funding for operational costs. Individuals as well as private foundations know that when they give money to the studio, it goes to the artists.
This money can benefit them in three ways. We distribute emergency aid to the most vulnerable artists (but that represents a relatively small portion). We buy a lot of material because artists always need more material. And we distribute project grants ranging from €1,500 to €3,000 with the support of foundations such as the Porosus Foundation.
The place is free. We do not have a formal contract with the artists. We have a moral contract with them.
For a precarious artist, this money is like oxygen. We “force” them to spend at least a third of the money directly on the project. With the rest of the money they can improve their living conditions a little bit, which also allows them to concentrate on their project. An artist who has housing and some amount of income will typically decide to take the entire grant and put it into their project. We stay consistent so the people who donate money to the studio know that their money goes to the artists.
LC: How is the workshop set up?
AC: First we welcome the artists. We help answer questions about residencies and grants, because we are constantly looking for opportunities beyond our workshop. We also solicit funding for our workshop, run the space, do cultural mediation, and communications. We also run a French language school and maintain a website. We have a festival, Visions of exile, which has taken place three times in the Paris region. This year, in 2020, we are leaving Paris and going to Nice. Our goal for 2021 is to go to four European cities that are hostile to migrants. Of course, it would have been easier to go to Berlin, Amsterdam, or London, but we would rather do Krakow, Budapest, or Vienna.
LC: How do you encourage cultural exchanges between artists from so many different countries?
AC: The workshops are not allocated by country of origin. We encourage collaborative projects in which artists from different places — as well as different disciplines — work together. This generates these exchanges, and if they work out, new projects as well.
Right now there is a Syrian artist who is working on a dance show with an Ivorian artist, among others. The workshop brought them into the same space. They met, and all of a sudden something was created. They will continue to work together to create these synergies, to make things possible, and to allow the artistic forms that emerge here to be of great value and of great quality. That is also very important to us.