• Jenny Crum

Montmartre: An Artist's Sanctuary

L'Atelier is a refuge for refugees who haven't given up their passion for art since immigrating. It is a place where they can create.

The Basilica crowns the Montmartre neighborhood, forever a home for the neglected (Lionel Bonnaventure/AFP).

The historic district of Montmartre, located in the northernmost suburb, or arrondissement, of Paris, bustles with life. Mass-goers relish in the sanctity of Sacré-Cœur Basilica by day; those seeking the revelries of dance frequent Montmartre’s boîtes by night. A continuous stream of dreamers, creatives, and optimists have long inhabited the cobblestone streets of the 18th arrondissement. In the late 1800s, the Post-Impressionist art movement thrived in Montmartre; famous artists such as Seurat, Gaugin, Cezanne, and Toulouse-Latrec frequented the dance halls, cafes, and exhibits of the district’s thronging bohemian scene of the time. These and other Impressionist artists flocked to Montmartre, seeking to escape the elitism of the Parisian Salon (the annual exhibition of French art) so their art could be displayed and dispersed to the people of Paris, not solely aristocrats. These artists emphasized that creativity, not expensive education, was the fundamental requirement to be an artist; they were champions of artistic accessibility for all. Bringing with them their dignity and paintbrushes, these men and women sought the safety of like-minded artists to express their individuality.

Today, Montmartre continues to accommodate marginalized artists. L’Atelier des Artistes en Exil (Agency of Artists in Exile, AA-E), founded in Montmartre but now located a few blocks from the Louvre, supports immigrant artists in Paris.

L’Atelier des Artistes en Exil provides a safe place for immigrant artists. The AA-E focuses on strengthening immigrant artists and their endeavours. The organization meets the needs of “artists in exile” by providing them with the tools and connections required to bolster their standing within their desired artistic communities.

The AA-E is a communal space where immigrants have access to resources needed to create, emphasizing that “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, because it is through the voices of its artists that the cultures of imperilled countries can continue to be perpetuated, it is important that artists have the opportunity to continue practising their art.”

Artists focus in photography, choreography, poetry, music, theatre, and other areas of artistic expression. AA-E is a refuge for refugees who haven’t given up their passion for their art since immigrating.

Most migrants in Paris are found in banlieues like this one in Courneuve (Christian Liewig/SIPA).

The need for the AA-E is critical given a large but unmarginalized immigrant population in Paris. Each year, roughly 100,000 immigrants enter France. As an urban hub, Paris has become a sanctuary for migrants as conflicts in the Middle East and Africa displace many families and individuals. According to data collected by L’Institut Paris Region, 35% of the population of the region of Île-de-France region (the region containing Paris) are either immigrants or have at least one immigrant parent. These individuals flock to enclaves within Paris and its suburbs and attempt to make a living.

But political rhetoric opposing the influx of migrants from right-wing political parties coupled with increasingly stringent French immigration policies have made being an immigrant in Paris difficult. A significant portion of these immigrants lack a steady residence or income. Criticisms of French immigration policy and protests by right-wing political groups who claim that immigration is a “threat to order and unity...and the very existence of the French national community” have affected public opinion about immigrants and refugees, heightening the presence of white nationalism in France.

Despite these challenges, Paris has long provided exposure for artists, architects, and idealists from afar as they arrive and cluster in the city’s various arrondissements. But for displaced artists, in France’s current socio-political climate, establishing themselves can be a daunting task. Just as the Post-Impressionists arrived in Montmartre seeking equitable opportunity and collective expression, the immigrant artists of Paris seek a similar supportive artistic environment.

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far right, anti-immigrant Front National pumps her fist (Charles Platiau/Reuters).

There is immense power in providing a place for expression and collaboration. L’Atelier des Artistes en Exil continues to offer a way for immigrants to return to their art. Abkar Mohamed, a photographer from Sudan who came to France in 2015, has been an artist with the AA-E since 2017. He uses the mediums of photography, filmmaking, and writing to expose the realities of refugees and modern slavery in the Middle East. Mohamed writes “as if he was behind his camera.” Adam Ghandi, another Sudanese immigrant, resided in Paris for about ten years and founded the Lamma Orchestra, music group that combines Sudanese music with a “nilo-groove style jazz.” It brings together musicians from all over the world to preserve the culture of Sudanese music traditions.

These are just a few examples of the plethora of talented artists with AA-E. The stories of the AA-E artists and their passion for art gives homage to the neighborhood of Montmartre and its fringe artists of the late 1800s.

The success of AA-E reveals that sometimes, to fill a need, connection is critical. Connection to a shared experience, connection to future possibilities, connection to resources: these things are all necessary for an artist in an unfamiliar place to have a viable future within his or her passion.

But perhaps most importantly, L’Atelier de Artistes en Exil provides safety. It is a sanctuary where these artists can be proud of their immigrant experiences without the judgement of the outside world. It is a place where they can take a deep breath, bond with others, and most importantly, create.

Note: If you want to learn more about l’Atelier des Artistes en Exil, donate to the organization, or view works from artists it supports, its website can be found at https://aa-e.org/en/category/atelier-2/. Their Instagram page is @atelierartistesexil.

Cover: Massimo Sestini/Polaris

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