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Paris opens a door to exiled artists

It was when Kubra Khademi stopped the traffic in Kabul, and men began to throw stones at her and bay for her blood, that she knew she was going to have to leave the country.

The young performance artist had walked alone into one of the Afghan capital’s busiest intersections wearing tin armour over her breasts and backside to highlight the harassment women face in the streets.

Even as she made her escape in a taxi, one of the mob touched her behind.

“I had to hide out in Kabul until they could get me away,” she told AFP of her flight to France.

Twice condemned to death for criticising the Khartoum government, Sudanese poet Moneim Rahma did not think twice when an unexpected chance to flee the country presented itself.

While Syrian director Samer Salameh knew he was putting himself at risk by making a film about his devastated Damascus neighbourhood of Yarmouk — once described as “the worst place on earth” by aid agencies — while serving as an army conscript.

All three eventually made it to the French capital, which a half century after it was last the prime destination for writers and artists fleeing oppression, is again becoming a haven for emigres.

Next to a cash-and-carry in a working-class district of northern Paris, a drop-in centre has been helping some 200 artists find their feet in France since October.

The Studio of Artists in Exile does not pretend to be a panacea for the problems artists face when they suddenly find themselves “a fish out of water” in a new country.

– ‘France is easier for artists’ –

But, despite operating on a shoestring budget and in donated premises, it can help artists navigate the maze of relaunching their careers, said co-founder Judith Depaule.

“In ways France is attractive for artists and easier for them to work in because, unlike Germany — where you have either the underground or subsidised state art organisations, — in France there is a lot in-between,” she said.

“The system itself makes it easier here,” she added.

“Paris has historically always been a place where exiled artists came to. In the 1920s, we had the Russians and then the artists who fled the civil war in Spain to join Picasso,” Depaule said.

While it has been nearly half a century since Paris, often dubbed a “museum city”, was a major destination for artists, “the cycle is perhaps changing”, Depaule insisted.

Last week French Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen publicly backed the studio, inviting its artists to her offices even as her government tightened rules making claiming asylum more difficult in France.

She praised the “extraordinary” way some in the arts had embraced the newcomers and urged others to follow their lead to “enlarge the way we see the world and open up our culture”.

Nyssen also invited 15 exiled artists, including Khademi and Rahma, to show their work in her ministry.

Khademi, 28, has fully embraced her new life since arriving in the French capital two years ago, going back to university and being honoured by the government as a “knight of arts and letters”.

– Backwards over the Pyrenees –

“I walk a lot in Paris and that is where I think about my art,” she said.

In fact, she walked backwards over the Pyrenees to recreate the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s escape from Nazi occupied France to Spain during World War II.

With her work getting noticed, and a commission for a performance in the French Museum of Immigration, her career is taking off.

For Rahma, 57, whose family is stuck in Ethiopia, the situation is more complicated.

With much of his energy devoted to trying to get his wife and four children away from “the long arm of the Sudanese secret police”, he is less at ease.

Yet he has published a book with 10 French painters on what it is like to be a refugee, written “lots of poems” and is starting his third novel.

But his focus remains firmly on his homeland.

Getting to France allowed Syrian Palestinian Salameh to finish his film showing the fate of Yarmouk during the war — “194. Us, Children of the Camp”. It has since been shown at festivals in Europe.

Yet even for a 32-year-old, the adaptation to a new life has not been painless.

“It is quite weird but even during a war your homeland can feel easier, softer, because it is your country, your language,” Salameh told AFP.

“Here is quite tough. It’s a big capital, you see people living in the street, it can be scary sometimes. There are lots of opportunities but a lot of competition as well. But I am OK, and I am starting to have some ideas to do films here now.”

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