I’m not sure the question has much to do with the owl. C’est Quoi Ta France? (roughly ‘what’s your France?’) is the title of a forthcoming exhibition on the theme of cultural diversity, immigration and integration. It’s an art based project of Politicus, a new, non-partisan organisation with an ambitious plan to reinvigorate political life and civil society, from the grassroots (or the street) up. Stenciling polite queries on Paris walls may be a rather slow way to start a wide-ranging public debate but it could be a step in the right direction.
Some Paris street artists are already engaged, in a more or less deliberate way, in exploring issues of identity and society.
C215 intends his street portraits ‘to show things and people that society aims at keeping hidden: homeless people, street kids, bench lovers for example’.
Combo describes his street art as being principally about détournement, which can mean anything from rerouting or diverting to hijacking, depending on the context. He subverts familiar images from popular culture – press photos, bandes dessinées or video games – by incongruous additions. This being France, ‘popular culture’ includes the inspiring revolutionary paintings of Eugène Delacroix, so these three young women are instantly recognisable as stand-ins for Marianne or Liberty.
This untitled wall of photos (seen last autumn) was a series of portraits of migrants and asylum seekers living in an encampment under the elevated metro line at nearby La Chapelle. The message was clear without words. Look again, these people are individuals, each with their own story and their own hopes for the future.
I don’t know what the message is behind this anonymous portrait. It makes me feel uncomfortable, which may be the intention.
Street art may be gently subversive even when it has no overt message. Jerome Mesnager describes his Homme Blanc as ‘a symbol of light, strength and peace’ but his intentions often seem as much playful as political. These two are displaying Artiste Ouvrier’s stencil version of ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ by John William Waterhouse. If there’s any message behind the collaboration the two artists are leaving you guessing.
Miss Tic’s characters usually have their message spelled out clearly beside them, the kind of vaguely philosophical phrase that might be profound but quite possibly isn’t. ‘Fraternity is a living thought’ doesn’t sound so good in English.
Although plenty of French graffeurs see themselves as activists, it’s probably fair to say that most street art is more about self expression than social action. The discrete chalk angels that appear all over Paris are drawn with quick, confident lines but there’s no hint that they are the work of an established and successful fashion designer. For Jean-Charles de Castelbajac street art is a link back to his early years in Casablanca, where children commonly drew chalk pictures on street walls, though today (according to an article in Le Monde) the artist carries his chalks in his pocket in a custom made leather wallet by Hermes. I think I liked the angels better before I knew that.
(Click on any photo for a closer view)