Steps away from two establishments targeted by terrorists during last year’s gruesome Paris attacks, local residents, children and street artists have pulled together to overcome the trauma through art.
Axelle and her friends Carla and Océane struck a sombre pose as they gazed at the shuttered entrance of the Petit Cambodge, a restaurant where several of the 130 victims of the Paris attacks were gunned down by terrorists last November 13.
“I guess we might never have come to this area had it not been for the attacks,” said the young student from Luxembourg, shivering on a typically damp and gloomy winter day. “But we felt it was important to be here and pay our respects.”
The horrific shootings have brought an unusually high number of foreign visitors to this little-known corner of northeastern Paris, including many who lay flowers for the victims. Though it is a magnet for Parisian artists, students and revelers, the neighbourhood is not usually part of the French capital’s tourist trail.
The media glare has since moved on. But the tight-knit community that lives and works near the Petit Cambodge and the adjacent Carillon bar has remained steadfast in its endeavour to reconstruct the lively, welcoming and laid-back atmosphere that defines the area.
“It’s like a village here, we all know each other,” said Hélène Lebecque, who sells handcrafted jewels and purses in a small shop next door to the Petit Cambodge. She said it was important for the locals to draw together and confront the horror that struck their neighbourhood.
Days after the attacks, Lebecque teamed up with other shop owners and residents to erect a web of garlands stretching from window to window. Soon the garlands formed a colourful canopy of hundreds of tiny flags fluttering in the wind, many of them covered in drawings by children from the nearby school.
Children’s involvement was also at the heart of the “Wall of Love” project, inspired by local artist Diana Kami. “I couldn’t express what I felt after the attacks so I began to draw,” said the artisan jeweler, who started decorating the school’s outside wall after dropping off her daughter on the Monday following the shootings.
To many in France, the simple act of drawing has come to symbolize a gesture of defiance and attachment to cherished values in the wake of the January, 2015, attacks against satirical journalCharlie Hebdo, which felled some of the finest cartoonists in the trade.
Drawing proved therapeutic as people awoke to the threat of successive attacks by homegrown terrorists. It presented parents with a medium to broach the sensitive subjects of terror and intolerance with their children. For Kami, it was also a way to breathe new life into a neighbourhood disfigured by the deadly rampage.
The young artist said she felt saddened by the mounds of flowers lying on the pavement, so she decided to paint flowers instead. Soon other mothers joined in. “It wasn’t exactly legal at that stage,” she noted. “But a friend who sits on the local council obtained permission to paint all 20 metres of the wall.”
‘A kick and a smile’
The council offered to pay for the paint, but Kami insisted it should be a community effort. She and her friends launched “Dessine-moi un bouquet” (Draw me a bouquet), a crowd-funding initiative that collected money for the paint and invited locals and artists to come and decorate the wall.
Putting her own work on hold for two months, Kami set about creating the Wall of Love over several sessions, at first with dozens of children and then with street artists, some of whom worked children’s drawings into their own creations. The result is a stunning juxtaposition of colours and art forms, ranging from pictures of comic book heroes to a pop-art rendition of Eugène Delacroix’s famous “Liberty Leading the People”.
Kami said she was heartened by the enthusiasm and solidarity displayed by local residents throughout the process. She was particularly touched when a friend of hers, who lived above the Carillon and gave birth just after the attacks, said the Wall of Love had persuaded her not to leave the neighbourhood. “She went to the maternity ward in a state of anguish,” Kami said. “But when she came back and saw the wall she told me it was the most beautiful gift we could have given her.”
At lunchtime on Friday, cheerful children could be seen pointing at their contribution on the wall. “We always love to see their drawings,” said Gertie Battonga, admiring the blue skies her granddaughters had helped paint around a forest of trees. “To see them on this wall is all the more special.”
Louison, a nurse at the Saint-Louis Hospital just across the street, where scores of bloodied casualties were rushed on that fateful November 13, said she was proud of the neighbourhood’s reaction to the attacks. Looking at the wall she added: “It gives me a kick and a smile every time I walk past here.”
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