I was looking forward to spend some time at 59 Rivoli that afternoon : after all, this is one of the most visited art spaces in Paris. The formerly occupied “squart” (an amalgam of the words squat + art) is an alternative space of Parisian legend : the Chez Robert, Electron Libre group has occupied it since 1999, breaking the barriers that prevented entrance to the derelict building, tidying it up and then using it as a canvas to their artistic expression.
They also utilized canny political manoeuvre to ally with Bertrand Delanoë, the future Mayor of Paris who had offered to formalize the squat at 59 Rivoli as one of his pre-election pledges. It was a promise he duly kept, and that was the beginning of an alliance that saw the former drug den across the Mairie de Paris turn into a refreshing art space, still ranking extremely well among the multitude of other attractions right in the heart of Paris.
Today, the formally established squat is a far cry from its heyday as an anarchic artists’ den. It has become a proper collective, ruled by their own charter and residing in a building now owned by the City of Paris, thriving under the auspices of its arts council. As you enter, you are greeted by one of the residents rotating on concierge duty : I am welcomed with a smile while she carries on working on a new art piece in the making. The piano next to the staircase is inviting to those who can play, but it’s early on a hot August Sunday and not many people seem to be in the mood today… I decide to begin at the top. Going up the 5 flights of stairs is a pleasant mini challenge, as you are immediately wrapped in colourful graffiti, some by the resident artists, some by visitors. The walls are literally covered in murals and pearls of wisdom, so much that I feel rewarded for every step I take with every sentence I reach up to. I am finally on floor 5, and curious to see what’s behind the door.
It’s nothing but excellent modern art of course, although there are ‘no photo’ and ‘no video’ signs everywhere, calling us to respect the artists’ work space. I am a bit disappointed : I was looking forward to take some snaps of this expansive and interesting place but it’s not going to happen without upsetting someone. The floors are partitioned in roughly equal parcels making up each artists’ space : there are 15 permanent and 15 temporary residencies, and obtaining a studio in the renowned building is achieved through a rigorous application process. There’s beautiful art of all sizes, with price tags for all pockets, and some comfy sofas and dried up brushes and the lingering artist types – but I know there’s something missing from the story.. I look outside the window across to the Rue Des Déchargeurs, there’s an H&M across the street with a McDonalds next to it. I take my first snap of the visit, the afternoon sun over the roofs.
I make my way to the 4th floor, and briefly see Anita sitting behind a desk inside her studio, among robots made of empty cigarette cartons and toy soldiers fighting in a magazine cut-out desert – but having already made up my mind on the 5th floor, I turn to leave. Anita stops me with sharp remark : “What’s the point visiting if you just look for a few seconds and go?” she goes. I become embarrassed and mumble something about not being able to take photos, but I am intrigued to find out more than what I have encountered so far, so I ask for permission to take a seat.
Anita is one of the permanent residents, and one of the first wave of squatters at 59 Rivoli. She’s been there since the early days, creating and displaying her unique collage work, the form she specializes in. The walls are covered in her sprawling creations : photos, drawings and magazine cutouts arranged together to form colourful patchworks, often peppered with sharp sentences, statements and things she wants to convey She’s also hosting some of her friends’ work in the studio, I see robots made out of cigarette boxes and a dress made of lengths super 8 film bound together, it’s an interesting space to work in. I asked her if she was in Beaux Arts school. “I haven’t finished the art school. I was a factory worker” she says with pride. I have boundless admiration for an artist with an interesting back story ! Factory line, office work, a debilitating illness that made it increasingly harder to perform – but a passion for life and collage art that was hard to contain saw her coming into the squat to find a place of expression. I ask her about her art : There’s a specific ensemble, a picture of desert with plastic toy soldiers all over it, and it reminds me of my own childhood’s fantastical battles in garden jungles and beach deserts. She shows me how it was created, and talks me through the various stages of the artwork towards its current form – according to her, an artwork is never finished until it’s finished. We move on and on to her other works, and time flies past.
We begin to share our concerns, me complaining about mainstream tourism and how it evidently destroys cities and communities, and I speak of my quest to find other, yet untouched outlets to satisfy the human desire for wanderlust. We agree that this very area has changed in recent years : There’s too many people, too many snapshots, but too little substance… too little human contact. While we discuss, other visitors turn up plenty and I notice them enter the studio, but we are so engaged in conversation that we don’t notice them leaving again. She talks about how life is getting more and more expensive in Paris, with rents and bills skyrocketing in recent years, and how she’s longing for a quieter life in a village, somewhere outside, there’s a cottage she has in mind. There’s a certain amount to be set aside that could get her there, and it doesn’t sound too much, but it doesn’t sound too little either.
And then there’s the disease. Standing up to get a bottle of water from the fridge behind her becomes a challenge. I help her open it and she offers me a cup. What will become of the art when she can’t perform it anymore? “I have plenty of ideas in my head” she smiles, “I have my stories”. And out comes the allegory of a child, raised among animals with human speech, and growing up and challenging these animals and their orderly world it doesn’t belong to, and wanting to find the door to enter other worlds… she goes on for a long time, and it’s a mesmerizing story, a children’s book in the making. “I can write on my laptop, albeit very slowly” she ponders. Trying to be useful, I share with her the miracles of technology and the speech-to-text capabilities of her phone. She’s pleasantly surprised and I commit to help her turn her story into a book at the earliest.
Other resident artists drop by to see her, some of them for governance matters: Anita is tasked to collect everyone’s contributions towards communal cleaning materials. Some others turn up just to say hi and see how she’s doing – they evidently care for her. “I will soon be on holiday in Morocco” she dreams. “This and that friend from the squat are taking me there”. The warm desert sand will help alleviate her symptoms, and so will the warmth of human contact : She is loved and looked after by her son and friends and talks about them with affection. I remember that we should all strive to make the most of and give the most to people we meet through life, especially to those who surround us with care and embrace us with positive light. The art of living a great life is another kind of art, and most of us ever yearn to master it – and today I feel I have uncovered some more of its mysteries.
I buy some of her collage art, the smaller but still unique pieces. She gives me some more as a gift, postal cards from her bigger works that adorn houses of friends in the Americas. I ask her to take a photo of her in her studio – and she says yes 😉 Meeting an original artist in their natural space and discussing art, life and holidays has to be my favourite pastime.. I am looking forward to the next phase of your career, Anita !
Special thanks to Anita Savary for her time and company in August 2017
All art © Anita Savary . All photos © explorabilia .