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A Paris colony for exiled artists needs a new home

L'Atelier helped Kubra Khademi a 30-year-old native of Afghanistan, achieve political asylum. The L'Atelier des Artistes en Exil workshop offers services and work spaces to artists who have fled war, poverty and oppression.


ON a forlorn stretch of the Seine near the Gare de Lyon station sits a small, dreary, government-owned red brick building that houses one of the most vibrant artistic communities here.

Since early October, L'Atelier des Artistes en Exil has used the 3,200-square-foot space to support about 200 exiled artists from around the world.

In a sense, L'Atelier, which depends on Paris City Hall for free work space, is itself in exile. It was forced by the city to leave its comfortable studio near Montmartre in June, then camped out in the annex of a cultural centre in south-east Paris. Now, it will have to vacate its current location in December. It has no idea where it will go next.

"We don't find the artists; they find us," said Judith Depaule, an actress and theatre producer who runs L'Atelier. "And they need a home, a real home, a permanent home, four or five times bigger than this one, so they can have space to paint, to rehearse, to sculpt, to film, to create their art." L'Atelier, a non-profit association under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, was started in 2017 to offer services and work spaces to artists of all origins and disciplines who have fled war, poverty and oppression. It has welcomed artists from more than 40 countries, including Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It operates with an annual budget of about 600,000 euros (S$906,000), mostly from public funds.

Volunteer French professors offer the artists free French lessons; volunteer lawyers give them free legal advice on how to obtain political asylum in France; other volunteers teach acting and writing skills. Museums including the Jeu de Paume and the Palais de Tokyo have lent their support.

"Because being a refugee is not a profession, because the role of art is to say and show things that are disturbing and to give voice to the oppressed," reads the organisation's mission statement, "because it is through the voices of its artists that the cultures of imperiled countries can continue to be perpetuated, it is important that artists have the opportunity to continue practising their art." Diane Kremer, programme director, calls L'Atelier "a political movement".

At a moment when Europe is confronting the influx of a record number of refugees, she said, "We couldn't stay indifferent to the tragedies around us."

For Maral Bolouri, a contemporary artist and writer, France became home in 2018 after she left her native Iran and lived for a time in Malaysia and Kenya. She said that because of the political nature of her art and her explicit portrayal of female and male bodies, and that she is gay, she would not be welcome back in Iran.

L'Atelier helped her achieve asylum as a political refugee. "It was hyper-difficult, a real hell," she said, moving between English and French. "Without the support of the Atelier, I wouldn't have had a chance." Her current writing focuses on the immigrant's identity in a country like France. "I'm welcome as long as I fit into the definition of being a good brown, Middle Eastern woman, a good immigrant," she said.

Kubra Khademi, a 30-year-old native of Afghanistan, broke from conservative traditions when she studied fine arts at universities in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Lahore, Pakistan. "When I was 16, I already knew I didn't want to get married, that marriage was my enemy," she said, a stance that made her an oddity in her religious family. Ms Khademi became a performance artist promoting the rights of women. In 2015, after she walked through the streets dressed in what she called a "feminist armour" of metal, the shape of her breasts and buttocks exaggerated, she was forced to go into hiding and then fled the country for France. She received political asylum status and is now painting in watercolours.

A little bit of space to call my own

One of her recent works shows a stylised nude woman, standing with her legs apart holding a small child by the hair in each hand; under her vagina is a small fire. The woman, she said, represents her widowed mother in Kabul, who married at 12 and had 10 children; she supported Ms Khademi's decision to pursue an education and become an artist.

"It is amazing to have a little bit of space to call my own, where I can work, store my paints and paintings, meet people," Ms Khademi said. "Of course, I speak to my mother every day."

On the day I visited, Yannos Majestikos, 31, a sculptor and performance artist who grew up in and studied interior architectural design in Congo, was practising his one-man show. He put his head inside a hollow, old-fashioned television set and strapped it to his chest. Barefoot, dressed in jeans and a black shirt, he moved and swayed, the television broadcasting images of prominent figures of the colonial and anti-colonial movements, including Leopold II of Belgium and Mobutu Sese Seko, a former president of Zaire, as Congo was once known, their contradicting speeches mixing together as they are played on the television speakers. He is pursuing political asylum status in France so that he can show his art around the world. "That is my dream," he said.

Last year, L'Atelier got a psychological boost when Tim Cook, Apple's chief executive, visited and said on Twitter afterward with a photo: "A profoundly moving visit to the @aartistesenexil in Paris. Through their works of creativity and courage, these artists are shining a light on the hardships that so many face as refugees." NYTIMES

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