Birds halfway between heaven and earth
“I believe that we must really distinguish between aesthetics and Beauty: Beauty cannot be the pretty, nor is it the peaceful or the pleasant.”
How did you become an artist?
I’ve been drawing since I was very young, but I really started exhibiting by chance, because I hadn’t decided to make painting my profession. I had studied in sustainable development but, not finding a job, I did odd jobs, before showing some drawings at a festival. I was surprised to see people buying them, not expecting it at all: I then realized that I could perhaps make a living from Art. Then I did some exhibitions in my town and that’s how it all really started.
Street art came quickly, because at the opening of one of these exhibitions the members of a collective came to meet me. We got on well and they offered me to come and stick with them in the street. As soon as I came out, it was love at first sight. I loved to work in large format on the wall, discovering new gestures and new textures.
Why did you choose collage?
This choice was first of all linked to the collective, because the two people who pushed me towards the street were mainly doing collage. Moreover, I am very slow in my drawing and painting directly on the wall is not always possible in the street. Indeed, I spend about three days on a collage on a human scale, which would be impossible to do in the wild. Beyond this question of speed, the technique I now use with Indian ink adapts really well to paper.
Finally, I’m not very interested in breaking down a wall: I have nothing against the vandal, but I also want to give the owner of the walls the possibility to tear off my collage if he doesn’t like it. It’s a tacit agreement: I impose myself in a non-destructive, ephemeral way. The degradation that then takes place little by little is quite poetic.
Do you choose particular places to place your creations?
Unlike most artists I do not make collages for specific places. Usually I paint my character, before I walk around town looking for a suitable place. On the other hand, I look for walls that have a soul, drips, stains, and I like the appearance of vegetal presences because, as I often complete my birds with branches, it allows me to create a game between the two.
Your first drawings already had this vegetal theme. What does it represent for you so that you can drag it between your different universes?
I was born in French Guiana, in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, and I grew up surrounded by vegetation all the time. For people who don’t know this forest, it’s an impressive universe as much for its fauna – even though it’s hidden – as for its flora, lianas and foliage. It can almost be oppressive, but it’s a universe in which I feel good. I often say that I have the impression that 50% of sap flows in my veins and I feel very close to this vegetal aspect.
So the branch would now be more a remanence of your journey than the inclusion of plants in the city?
This dimension persists in the background. That’s also why I look for places where vegetation is present, like ivy on the walls, because these are places that we tend to forget when we walk down the street, and the fact of putting a collage on them makes it possible to provoke a more attentive look. As for my relationship to urban space, you should also know that I have sometimes pasted in very small villages, non-urban places as such, with inhabitants who are not used to seeing street art, who don’t know what it is, but who can still be impacted by these paintings. It seems important to me to get out of cities like Paris or Lyon. On the other hand, I don’t do urbex, because I don’t look for abandoned places, but on the contrary for living places so that there can be this interaction with passers-by.
COLLAGE AND THE STREET
How did you slip from your original habitat into the street, which is perhaps the most opposite universe?
It’s true that I grew up in the country, without ever living in big cities until I was an adult. As a result, I had almost no “graffiti culture” before I painted my first wall: if the street appealed to me, it was for its rebellious side but above all for the free nature of these works offered to an uninvited, and sometimes uninformed, public. There is a militant dimension to proposing Art in this way, it reflected my values and that’s what made me move towards Street art. Very quickly I felt at ease with the artists of this milieu, more at my place than in the Fine Arts, where there is a lot of competition and pretense. The solidarity, mutual aid and easy access allowed the street to become obvious to me as a space for artistic creation when it was not my original universe.
In what way is the street a special creative space?
Except on the largest walls, my characters are mostly on a human scale. I want them to blend in with the passers-by, so that an interaction can take place between them. The street is also a completely democratic space, perhaps even for me the most democratic there is, because we all pass through it, whether we are rich or poor, foreign or local, on our way to work, to see someone, to do some shopping, It’s a place where the works can reach an audience that is not invited, that doesn’t go to an exhibition, that doesn’t have to push the door of a gallery or give themselves the opportunity to do so, because a lot of people don’t dare to take that step. But what I’m really interested in is this possibility of reaching everyone.
Moreover, I call my bird-headed characters Migrators. The idea is to draw a parallel between migratory birds and migrants to offer them a symbolic place among passers-by, completely integrated into our society. And if it’s a utopia, the street is the best space to make it come alive.
Do you only glue unique pieces?
Indeed, it is very important for me not to make reproductions, because I think that the street and its passers-by deserve originals. When I made my first collage, I had placed an impression, and I really didn’t like it, because I felt like I was lying to people, I thought it was false. It was then necessary to accept to work thirty hours for a collage that could be torn out the next day, but it is a risk I am ready to take because if I militate so that people can see paintings in the street without having to push the door of a gallery it is also so that they can see real works.
What is your relationship with photography?
I don’t consider my photographs to be works of art. Sometimes people take some of my collages and make incredible things out of them, but I take them myself for archiving and for dissemination on the Internet. While it is always better to see a painting in real life, it still allows those who cannot move around to see the work.
OF HUMAN BIRDS
How did your first paintings gradually evolve towards these bird-headed figures?
My previous characters were often centred on the face, with already this dreamlike aspect and branches coming out of their heads. I did an exhibition in Lyon with these paintings, but once I was in front of the canvases I realized that this was not the atmosphere I wanted to convey. It was a real questioning: for six months I took a break without painting to question myself about what I was doing. I went back in time to go back to a bird-headed character painted years before that I still remember. There was something there to dig into that I hadn’t followed. So I tried to make one on a human scale. The evidence was instantaneous. I felt like my whole journey had led me to that moment.
Your work is characterized by recurrent oppositions in the use of colour and a dreamlike line for the heads of birds, with that of black and white and a realistic treatment for naked bodies or clothing.
When I painted portraits they were in black and white, so I reused this method for the first birds. Soon enough I thought it was a pity not to show their incredible colours, because birds are among the most colourful animals. I still paint birds that exist, with great ornithological fidelity. However, I wanted to keep the black and white for the human bodies, in order to magnify the head by creating this contrast.
Concerning nudity or clothing, I want to find a similarity: although they have bird heads, I want my characters to look like the passers-by in the street. So I try to dress them like everyone else. I work with models and, if we chose their clothes together in the beginning, I now tell them to come as they are. On canvas, I sometimes work around nudity, and then the onirism joins the body as well.
My models are not only technical references: if I sometimes suggest poses to them, they are often the ones who will bring things I hadn’t thought of and give me ideas afterwards. There is thus a collaboration between us: one of the models with whom I regularly collaborate exudes a nonchalance that I like very much, because she looks very little like me. Through this behaviour, which is foreign to me, she brings a material with which to work that is really interesting.
What story do the body and the gestures tell?
I try to keep the narrative blurred enough so that everyone can tell their own story. I don’t want to give too many keys to reading in the painting I propose. This idea clings to the dreamlike dimension and to everyone’s daydreams, but also to the childlike imagination that we all still have a little bit inside us. When we were little we used to tell stories to each other very easily by looking at pictures, things that are more difficult to do as adults. I try to revive this feeling, and I like to observe people incognito in front of my collages to see if they recreate stories for themselves. This is essential for me.
Why choose to represent real size characters?
They are just a little larger than human scale, because the very first ones made in this way seemed small in the context of the street. Today they are two meters high, because that’s what will make them look like a real person when you see them out of the corner of your eye. Sometimes people startle when I stick them in rather dark places. Our brain is conditioned to recognize the human figure, and if my characters were much smaller or much bigger they wouldn’t have that impact, which opens the door to dialogue: because they look like us, they question us.
You use India ink for your outdoor collages.
I use Indian ink to paint the bodies of my characters, for the drapes and the skin. For the bird heads, I don’t use the same paints in the street and on canvas, out of ecological conviction, because in the street I paint with a casein-based paint, made from milk proteins and completely biodegradable. Previously I used acrylic, but it would flake off and make pieces of paint – and therefore plastic – fall to the ground. On canvas I always use acrylic because casein unfortunately does not offer as much finesse in the realization. However, I would like to find a more ecological alternative. I also use more and more oil paint because I try to draw inspiration from the old painting techniques of the great masters, especially sfumatos and glazes. I spend a lot of time walking around museums to scrutinize the paintings in detail and try to understand how the painters worked.
I also sometimes use the spray for large canvases or frescoes, so that I can decorate the backgrounds with stencils: as I am half Indian, I am inspired by motifs that appear in South Indian handicrafts, on fabrics or carved wood.
URBAN ART AND THE SEARCH FOR BEAUTY
Do you consider Urban Art as an artistic movement in its own right?
For me it is obvious that this movement exists. It comes from a multiple history, and if I feel much more heiress of Ernest Pignon-Ernest than of the first American graffiti artists, I think it’s great that the two ended up joining gradually. I feel that this movement forms one big family and I’m happy to be part of it. I find it extraordinary, especially in terms of freedom, but also in terms of taking possession of the public space. The street should be everyone’s! There are a lot of sub-categories in street art, from muralism to the small vandalized room, but I think they all have their place. The dialogue that is built with architecture is also interesting, even if architects don’t always like it.
Above all, I think I’m angry with contemporary art as it is today, because it’s often very elitist and is only presented to people who have a certain culture that allows them to grasp it. Sometimes I’ve heard people say: I can’t say if I like it because I don’t know anything about it. It’s a terribly sad thought. Contemporary art often provokes these reactions, and if there are things that I myself like very much, they remain difficult to apprehend for the majority of the public.
It’s an interesting question: what would define an elitist art? The way it is presented to the public or the possibility it offers (or not) to be apprehended?
The question is complex. Indeed I think the place plays a big role, but if we take the example of the sculpture presented in the public space, the problem remains if the work is too conceptual (I am thinking for example of Paul McCarthy’s tree). It is too difficult for the public to receive it, to understand it, to be touched by it. There are some really interesting things in contemporary art, but I find it a pity, even contemptuous towards the public, to have to read fifteen pages of artistic approach, or to need a master’s degree in art history to perceive the artist’s intention. In my opinion the work of art should be self-sufficient. You don’t need to read anything to find the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Rodin’s Kiss beautiful.
Moreover, and I know that this idea annoys many art critics today, I am very attached to aesthetics, and to go further to Beauty in the philosophical sense of the term. It’s something that has been lost in contemporary art: if it was necessary in Duchamp’s time to detach oneself from the notion of pure aesthetics, I think it would be good to come back to it because there is still a lot to dig into.
Moreover, I am very attached to technique. When you go back in the history of Art, most of the great masters are also great technicians. But when you look at contemporary artists, many of them are no longer, or even don’t make their works themselves anymore, only proposing a concept. You have to be quick, productive, think rather than do. That bothers me: if it is true that Art is born from the idea, I believe that it has no substance if the artist is not the artisan of his work. And this is long and requires know-how. I find it difficult to see Contemporary Art and especially Conceptual Art as Art. I respect it, find it important, am sometimes touched by it, but I rather see it as a new form of applied philosophy.
Contemporary Art has gradually moved away from humanity, instead of elevating it. I like Urban Art because it is a popular art, which is for everyone and is understandable by everyone.
Street art precisely allows artists with more sensitive than conceptual approaches to express themselves on the same level.
The fact that there is not enough meaning is regularly criticized. This pressure comes from Contemporary Art, where the message, even if it is not controversial or committed, occupies a decisive place. As a result, even artists whose approach is more focused on aesthetics feel forced to justify themselves and find a message to carry. Everyone feels obliged to explain what they are denouncing. Yet I don’t think there is any absolute need for it.
Beyond that, I find that having the intention to put something beautiful on the street is already a militant act in itself. We live in a society that’s getting its ass kicked, whose values are pretty ugly, and bringing a little poetry to try to surround people with beauty is something I defend. It doesn’t always work, and some people are more receptive than others, but if at least one person feels that way about my work it’s a victory.
Some would reply that it is futile to pretend to bring beauty to the street, as it is an eminently subjective notion. Do you think there is a stage where the intention to create an aesthetic work would be appreciated by all?
I could never answer that, because it is an indescribable notion. I don’t think there is any pretension to have because Beauty seems to me to be inaccessible anyway. It’s the intention that counts: nothing prevents you from trying.
Above all, I believe that one must really distinguish between aesthetics and Beauty: Beauty cannot be the pretty, nor is it the peaceful or the pleasant. I’m not looking to decorate a living room or public space.
I spend my time reading what philosophers think of the term, but their opinions differ between those who believe that Beauty is universal and those who think that it is intrinsically subjective, without anyone really managing to define it. For me, Beauty is first and foremost a feeling or emotion. I know this because I have already felt it, but I cannot explain it in words. When I paint I try to tend towards this feeling. Of course I never really reach it, and when I look at a painting again six months later I always tell myself that I could have gone further. Sometimes there are moments of grace, a brushstroke in which I tell myself that there is something, but this happens to me much more often when I look at the work of other artists than in my painting.
I once fell almost to my knees in front of a painting in a museum of fine arts. It was not a known painter, not a known work, but it had captivated me*. Yet this painting I was looking at also made me want to run away: it was so beautiful that it was unbearable. This work represented the dead Christ coming down from the cross: nothing pretty here, a rather glaucous and sad subject, yet this painting provoked in me a great exaltation. There was in this light, this chiaroscuro without grandiloquence, without violence, in the pale flesh, the barely visible blood, the sober death, something that touched the sublime. I believe that the Beautiful and the terrible work very well together. I like to work with antagonisms: chiaroscuro, realism and fantasy, animal and vegetable, the beautiful and the disturbing. That’s why my work is sometimes dark, especially when I bring out branches from naked bodies, making them look a little strange. There is a recent artistic movement born in Australia, the Beautiful bizarre, close to Neo-surrealism, which I feel close to. Baudelaire said that “the Beautiful is always bizarre”: I am infinitely convinced by this sentence.
* The Dead Christ, Hippolyte Michaud, 1881. Beaune Museum of Fine Arts