Francesco Bouhbal stands among his paintings at his studio in the centre of Paris. He’s one of the resident artists and founders of 59 Rivoli, a 6 story building full of artists workshops and studios that are freely open to the public.
With a character as warm and colorful as his artwork, Francesco insists on taking my photograph before I take his. “People are rarely in their own pictures,” he says as he points my camera at the ceiling then tells me to look into the reflection at my camera. We then swap places and Francesco assumes a pose while looking at me in the reflection. (You can see the reflection portrait here.)
Francesco has been working here for 17 years. “It’s a long time in your life, but it’s a place like no other,” he tells me. He mainly paints pictures of people. “They come from my imagination,” he tells me as he begins moving large paintings to show me a particular piece that’s painted on a section of aeroplane, including working window shades. “I found this,” he says as he shows me how the window shutters go up and down. “A part of a plane, just discarded. How lucky, right?”
We chatted a little about the building and the history of 59 Rivoli. Once an abandoned building, it was taken over in the late 90s as an illegal artists’ squat that the artists called a “squart” – a contraction of squat and art.
The government tried to evict them in the year 2000, but after a publicity campaign and a lot of media attention, the eviction was delayed. The group then found support from the Socialist politician, Bertrand Delanoë, who was campaigning to become the Mayor of Paris in 2001. He promised that if he were to be elected he would legitimise the artists’ occupation of 59 Rivoli. Delanoë went on to win that election and indeed kept his promise. In 2009, after completing some renovation work, the artists and Delanoë declared the building officially open.
Unlike any of the other galleries in Paris, visitors to 59 Rivoli walk though the studios of the artists as they work. This connects the viewer to the creative process, and doesn’t separate the artists from the artwork in a way that more formal galleries do. “It’s the principle of the building, to be together with the people. Normally when you see art in the museum, it is not like this,” Francesco says.
There are 30 artists’ studios in the building that is colourfully decorated with wild painting all over the walls and the wonderful spiral staircase that I will very likely come back to photograph for another picture of the day.
See the building from outside using Google street view.
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