Saturday, July 19, 2014

Champs de Mars: Graffiti Workshops as Intercultural Exchange

I am in Perpignan this week to do field work at the international Meeting of Styles festival, starting tonight, at Casa Musicale. One of my interlocutors, rapper and graffiti artist Demon, enabled me to make contact with the festival organizers, Astro and Kanos, and has allowed me to follow some of his cross-cultural exchanges via graffiti, namely, in his work with the U.S. Embassy through youth workshops.

Demon has taught workshops in Marseilles, Avignon, and Perpignan over the past week and a half. The workshops range from two to three days, with sessions running between three to four hours. Youth ages are varied, but range from five to nineteen, and his groups also vary in size, fluctuating with the attention of participants and the interest of residents nearby. Demon was put into contact with the Marseilles US Embassy conseiller aux Affaires Culturelles, Vanessa Tiersky. Tiersky has organized a range of cultural events, and not only worked as an organizer but also played a key role as a facilitator during the session I observed on Friday, July 18th.

We arrived at Champs de Mars, an HLM a little south of Perpignan's city center at 2pm. The workshop was held by a playground and little park under a stand of trees, and put together by members of the SJP, Solidarité Jeunesse Roussillon, Youth Solidarity of Roussillon, the region of which Perpignan is a part. Yesterday marked the third and final days of workshops.

Over the first two days Demon and a Perpignan based writer had worked with the youth on perspective, tagging, making and using aerosol cans, and creating stencils. The products of their labor were on display. The first two murals were on what looked like a concrete hand ball court wall. One side showed a city scape resembling Chicago, "with a moon made out of fromage," Demon explained, whereas the other was a colorful burner saying "Champs de Mars."

A free standing panel depicting three animals and the acronym, "SPA," Societé pour le Protection des Animaux, Society for the Protection of Animals, stood nearby. The panel was going to be moved to the SPA headquarters and stand as a welcoming image for visitors.

The projects for yesterday included making a new panel for the SJR headquarters, two free standing panels, and two smaller ones for younger children to work on. The SJR panel was to be environment themed. After explaining what they wanted done, Cherifa and Emmanuel worked with the younger children while Christoph, Demon, and Vanessa worked with the older youth.

Demon and Vanessa solicited ideas from the teenage girls, asking them what comes to mind when they think about environment. "Leaves?" Vanessa asked, jokingly. They had done many, many leaf stencils the day before, and were eager to try something new. This brainstorming session was bilingual, as the workshops were also opportunities for youth to learn and practice their English. They decided to make flower stencils, pouchoirs, and set to work drawing flowers.

Demon cautioned that they ought to make the flowers large, since they were going to be cut out with exacto knives. While the youth worked on flowers, Demon copied the SJR logo, three hands, onto the panel where the flowers would be placed. At the same time, the teenage girls were practicing aerosol skills on a large notebook on an easel. They then worked on filling in the two letter based panels.

After adults cut out stencils for the youth they went to work with the stencils. First, they were cautious, sticking to one color.

Then they became more adventurous, mixing colors and textures. Demon exhorted them, "I don't want any blank space! You can layer! If you hold the can a little back, you can make a cool effect." He demonstrated holding the spray nozzle about three inches away to make a splash of color that was more pixellated and soft, creating a nice fade between colors. "Its a flower power mural," Vanessa observed. A member of the Politique du Ville, Politics of the City municipal branch arrived around 4 along with the deputy mayor of Perpignan to observe the end of the workshop. The Politique du Ville representative, Olivier Amiel, emphasized that hip hop culture was a large part of the culture in the South of France in spaces like Marseille, Toulouse, and Perpignan, and urged me to explore the street art culture "outside of MOS."

Although the primary goal of the workshops is to teach youth art skills, a secondary effect is that it creates discussion about cross-cultural issues. Sitting with youth whose families were from Morocco and Algiers we discussed differences in food, traffic, and language between their diasporic position and my own U.S. experiences. We each got to practice different languages, and learn together about hand made stencils and spray control. Youth that were a little quiet with me at the beginning of the session were emboldened by the end, a boy around seven approaching me and saying, proudly in english, "My name is Yusuf!" and running away. Demon had a dense following after three days in the space, youth crowding around to observe him making stencils, doing outlines, or working on a small dedication piece for Cherifa and Emmanuel.

He joked with them about his inability to pronounce French words, and congratulated them on their hard work.

After the art pieces were finished Demon performed a few rap songs. They were pre written, but in the introduction to the first he freestyled a bit about Perpignan, his experience painting with the kids, and then solicited a call and response exchange that started out cautiously and then gained in energy, so much so that one of the youngest boys eagerly yelled ahead of every chorus.

It offered a glimpse of Chicago to Perpignan residents, and displayed an influence of France on Chicago, evident in Demon's "Viva la---France!" call and response verse, but the whole workshop was also an occasion to spotlight the creativity, intelligence, and passion of the Champs de Mars youth themselves. Their curiosity, energy, and interest drove the workshops, and was evident in the cluster of hands, flowers, and leaves in the different panels, but also their smiles and eager experimentation with rap verse. The session closed with a chaotic group photo, and some refreshments.

I'd like to thank Demon, Vanessa, the SJR folks, and the youth for allowing me to observe, and participate a bit, in yesterday's proceedings. C'était magnifique.

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