Agora Europe

Launched in 2017, L'atelier des artistes en exil has set itself the mission of accompanying artistic personalities in exile in France. Initially set up to respond to a request from these people lost in a country they do not know and faced with social and practical obstacles, the association has over time experienced a success that could be described as "bitter", as the need for its existence is a reflection of a sad state of the world. Invited to the Brussels edition of the travelling discussion and debate forum European Lab, we met Judith Depaule, instigator of the Atelier des artistes en exil.

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Interviewer: David Bola

Photo Credit: Christophe Maoult

As an introduction, I would like to rewind the clock a bit. In 2018, in the pages of French newspaper Le Monde, you deplored a dichotomy between the situation of exiled people and the success of the Atelier des artistes en exil. Has this feeling changed today? 

What I deplore is that this success is in the name of a terrifying state of the world. This statement came from a speech I wrote for the Culture for Peace Prize of the Fondations Jacques Chirac & Culture et Diversité. I said at the time that it was difficult to rejoice in the success of our ‘enterprise’, given that it reflects a disastrous state of the world and that this success tells of men and women suffering intolerable living conditions to the point of having to leave their country and being forced into exile. 

What has happened in the last two years confirms this more than ever: the coup in Burma, the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine… All of these events have resulted in a large number of people being displaced. The world is getting worse and worse, people are arriving in difficult states, they have experienced terrible things. How do you live with this? How do you bear the weight of these images? How do you overcome the unbearable? How do you rebuild yourself? There is of course the phenomenon of resilience, of oxymoron. Many people have worked on this.

Mamady Conde & Louise Debaecker © Christophe Maoult

And above all, you can’t imagine what it means to leave everything behind, to leave home. You will never be at home here. You can feel comfortable in a country that is not your own, but it will never be your home. Everything will push us, everything will make us understand that this is not home

Exile is a delicate balance between loss and gain. The loss of home, of your previous life, of your loved ones, of your reference points. The gain of this new world where you are enriched by other things, where you learn other things, where you meet other people, where you have other opportunities. It’s a constant back and forth between this loss and this gain.

There is also the choice to live with nostalgia or not, to stay in community or not. L’Atelier des artistes en exil tries not to encourage communitarianism. But it is sometimes difficult when many nationals of the same country arrive at the same time, like, for example, the Afghan artists evacuated in August 2021 at the time of Operation Apagan. It is then necessary to open a French class specifically for these artists, to hire Persian-speaking people dedicated to accompanying them. This is contrary to what has been done so far at L’Atelier des artistes en exil. 

It is about mixing cultures as much as possible and trying to make artists understand that they can talk to each other, regardless of their practice, skin colour, origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation. And in the end, the artists have art and exile in common.

Communitarianism is usually regressive and nationalistic. In exile, people who hated each other in their home country agree to eat at the same table, if only to remember those times when they were enemies. It’s amazing, but you can be nostalgic about
that, about anything.

As you mentioned earlier, the last two years have seen many international crises unfold (Burma, Afghanistan, Ukraine…) How is l’Atelier des artistes en exil evolving to respond to the increase in requests for support? 

We had to hire a lot of people. There is something that has changed in the modus operandi. The studio of artists in exile is seized even before the artists are on French soil, which is really very new. For example, for Burma, it was the French Institute in Rangoon that contacted us and said: “Could you accompany Burmese artists once they are on French territory?”

This was also the case with the Afghan people. Lists had been drawn up in advance and it had been agreed that official invitations from cultural organizations would be sent to the artists so that the embassy could issue them visas. Only three families managed to get out on commercial flights before the Taliban took Kabul. All the invitations had been approved by the embassy, but it happened very quickly and, as a result, many other families were stuck, unable to leave. Some of them were able to be evacuated at the time of the airlift, others are still waiting to get out.

Mehdi Yarmohammadi © Christophe Maout

At the beginning, L’Atelier des artistes en exil identified artists who had already arrived on the territory. As of recently, the workshop is “identified” and constantly solicited: artists will co-opt each other, and associations or institutions of all kinds that deal with migrants will redirect those who are artists to the workshop.

L’Atelier des artistes en exil found itself managing emergencies and as such was consecutively appointed national coordinator for Afghan artists, Burmese artists and Ukrainian and Russian artists, with means that allowed it to hire additional people who could express themselves in the language of the artists concerned. Unlike institutions, an association has the advantage of being more flexible and reactive, which is why L’Atelier des artistes en exil finds itself managing the crisis and having to find solutions.

The name of the association emphasizes the function of these individuals as artists, the support you provide does not seem to be limited to their artistic projects, it is also a support for individuals. Is it possible to imagine one without the other?

From the outset, the question arose of not dissociating the individual from the artist. Without knowing the situation of the individual, it is impossible to accompany the artist correctly. It is impossible to understand, for example, why the artist does not create for a year or more.

It is impossible to understand that they are unable to do so because they are preoccupied with a family repatriation story, because they feel guilty that their family has remained there, or because they are waiting for answers to their administrative procedures, which sometimes take a long, long time. It seems quite clear that the waiting and the uncertainty do not allow them to project themselves and encourage infantilization. 

Abdul Saboor, a photographer you have accompanied for a long time with L’Atelier des artistes en exil, is now in residence at the Institut supérieur des arts et design de Toulouse. How did this collaboration come about? 

After several years of discussion with the Collège de France to enter the PAUSE programme, initially intended for researchers in exile, the programme was also opened up to artists in exile. This allowed them to go on residencies in art schools with the complicity of ANdÉA (National Association of Art Schools). 

So Abdul Saboor indeed finds himself at the Higher Institute of Arts and Design in Toulouse and works with the students. For him, this is a form of consecration because he is someone who became a photographer on the road to exile. He is truly the figure of the self-taught. 

He is someone for whom art has been a weapon. He wanted to show the conditions of migrants on the road to the Balkans. He wanted to show how migrants spent three years standing still, crossing a border, being sent back, crossing the same border again and so on. He wanted to tell the story, to show the world what was really going on.

Then again, he already had a sensitivity, he had already been taking photographs since he was very young.

© Abdul Saboor

He really does immersive work, that is to say, he photographs almost exclusively migrants by going to where they are. Not always, but quite often. Obviously, being an Afghan migrant himself, he takes photos that no one else can, because he has a relationship of trust, because he knows how to capture the moments that journalists will try to steal. He stays, he is there and he captures the moment, like for example, this family who wanted to cross the Channel and who drowned.

It’s great that he gets to be in residence in Toulouse and actually talk about his work, interact with the students, with the teachers. 

During your panel, you said that you interviewed artists supported by your association. How did these interviews go?  

In 2017, when we started the workshop, the artists arrived in the place we had at the time in Marcadet-Poissonniers (Paris 18th district). I started to interview a certain number of them because it seemed to me to be a way of telling the story of L’Atelier.

I started by doing 14 interviews. The number 14 is linked to the fact that I did it in collaboration with a class of students from the Regional School of Actors in Cannes and Marseille. There were 14 of them in the class, so I decided to do as many stories of artists in exile as there were actors, and then to make up two parts of 7 stories: Je passe 1 and Je passe 2.

These stories were reduced to a five-minute format, told together in a common space. Each story was intended for a small group of spectators. The actors moved from one block of spectators to another, repeating the same story seven times. 

The artist’s image is present on a video tablet and at the end of the story an artistic gift is offered by the artist, in video. The series of questions, which I asked them systematically, was: “Why did you decide to leave your country? What was the triggering event? The tipping point? Can you describe to me very precisely the moment you decided to leave? How did you feel? Can you tell me about the means you used to leave? How did you leave your country? How did you leave? How was your transition to this other destination, to a new life?”

Before working on the aa-e, you had a place of artistic engagement in Paris, which was transformed to welcome exiled artists. How did this transformation take place? 

We had a place – which may seem very Lyon-like but is not – called Confluences (editor’s note – Confluences is a neighborhood in Lyon where two rivers meet). It was a so-called “intermediate” venue, i.e. a venue that was somewhat subsidized, but not too much, and which often did alternative things. In any case, it was a fairly committed place, with debates on issues such as the Algerian war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Syria, all these geopolitical themes that concern us.

At the beginning of the 2015 school year, which coincided with the spread of the photo of little Alyan, and the formation of the open-air camp in Saint-Ouen of Syrian refugees, there was a big awareness, which affected the cultural world. Ariel Cypel, who was the director of the theater, and the co-founder of the workshop for artists in exile, and I told ourselves that we had to welcome Syrians to Confluences. 

We went through the Revivre association, which had been working for a long time to welcome Syrians, to invite them to come and live in the venue. Then we tried to mobilize other cultural institutions in the Ile-de-France region to open their venues, and then we held a festival about Syria, Festival Péril(s).

And that’s when the question of artists in exile really came up. Because while preparing the festival, we met artists who told us that they couldn’t manage, that they didn’t understand, that they didn’t know how to do it, that they needed help. So it started from there. At that time, during the festival, a first exhibition of artists in exile was organized by Onda (Office national de diffusion artistique).

Maryam Samaan © Christophe Maout

In 2021, many cultural venues in France will have ceased all or part of their activity. Have you seen actions similar to yours develop? 

There have been quite a few places that have been occupied by artists and people who were asking themselves these questions. Among the actors I work with, who are more likely to be between 25 and 30 years old, there are many who have occupied places and asked themselves these questions, more often than not with precarious or undocumented workers.

These are places that belong to everyone and that are not open enough. It’s a real question of “the openness of public places”, the fact that people can’t find a place to work, to rehearse. A lot of places could be twice as open, but remain closed because it costs money to open them and you have to pay a caretaker. 

Is this really a good calculation? Many places could open up to others and be more shared when their main activity ends or during school holidays, allowing free access to try things out and giving the opportunity to people who don’t have the means. On this point, there is a lot of resistance. 

L’Atelier des artistes en exil is open until midnight on weekdays. A night guard is at the reception desk from 8pm, which allows everyone to come when they want. This is very important and adapts to all rhythms. 

Mahmoud Halabi © Christophe Maout

There was a big change in the theaters when the 35-hour week was introduced (editor’s note – In France, a typical full time work contract is 35 hours per week). It is difficult to follow a bureaucratic rhythm: we rehearse from 10 am to 6 pm. It is of course important to respect labor law, but artistic creation is not always compatible with these kinds of limitations. Sometimes you need to continue because you haven’t exhausted your idea. So yes, it’s complicated because you exceed the hours, or because you want to work at night or in the evening, not necessarily during office hours.

There are still residential spaces where you have the keys, you go in and out as you please. But it’s true that not all public institutions that should be the place of the common accessible to the public are the ones that are the most open. It’s a pity.

The question is the same for schools, even if they are starting to open up, especially in Paris. Why aren’t schools open when there are no more students? In Switzerland, schools are accessible whenever you want outside school hours. 

During the pandemic, most theaters remained open for rehearsals and creation. A lot of things were created. Things were invented that might never have been created in other circumstances. 

There were also new ways of looking at the public, under the ‘Covid-Compatible’ etiquette. Orientations that were already in the air were affirmed: the reappropriation of the public space, the reinvention of the relationship with the spectator, the displacement of the stage to other places. We all experienced it, we couldn’t do otherwise.

Cleve Nitoumbi © Christophe Maout

Have you come across similar proposals to L’Atelier des artistes en exil on European territory? 

There are things that exist, which are rather discipline-specific or country-specific programmes. For example, there have been things that exist in music, presumably because music is unifying and conducive to social mixing.

There are few things that are holistic, interdisciplinary and cross-community. There are exchange and residency programmes, but they do not provide long-term support. 

Precisely, this question of the long term can be difficult when we know that public authority aid is provided in response to one-off crises… How can we guarantee long-term support in this context?

The real question is the long term. We are often asked: “When do the people who come to L’Atelier leave?” and we answer: “When they can leave”.  So there is no announced end date. There are studies that estimate the integration time at 9 years.

I like to answer that because people realise that it’s a long time. 9 years implies a long period of support. You have to think about the boomerang of exile, which is expressed in post-traumatic syndromes, episodes of decompensation and various illnesses. Exile affects minds and bodies. The temporality of this shock wave is personal. Some people arrive and are completely apathetic and depressed, others will show this type of behaviour three or four years afterwards, it is impossible to predict.

Perhaps there is something in their integration that will hurt them terribly and make them go back to square one. 

One subject that particularly concerns me is the question of mourning in exile. It’s a very hard thing to live with. When you have conversations with your family from whom you are separated, you say that everything is fine because you don’t want to worry the people who are in exile, just as a person in exile will try not to express his or her difficulties so as not to worry his or her relatives back home. Then, all of a sudden, someone dies and we didn’t see it coming. Something falls apart. It’s even harder, how do you mourn when you’re far away? 

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About the author

David Bola is We are Europe Media‘s content editor. Formerly working at Radio Nova as a freelance journalist and hosts a monthly residency on Piñata Radio, with Ludotek, a show focused on video game music.

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