street art from Paris to Djerba with gallery owner Mehdi Ben Cheikh

Paris is the most beautiful city in the world “. Cliché? Maybe. What is certain is that the stars in Mehdi Ben Sheikh’s eyes are not deceiving. This man whose name is a reference in the middle of the street spent the art Life to cultivate his wonder for the capital. But away from the galleries, he wanted to bring back to the street what belonged to him: graffiti. Mehdi Ben Sheikh turned Vincent-Auriol Boulevard in the 13th arrondissement into his playground. He saw the large enclosures of HLMs as an invitation to dreams and, above all, to creation. In total, there are 35 frescoes by 26 different artists on the “Paris Boulevard 13” route.

At the intersection with Rue Jeanne D’arc, the artist Faile’s ballerina floats, eyes closed, on the large wall at number 110. At the foot of twelve floors, white letters stand out against a pastel cityscape. : ” And I held my breath “. Passers-by too. On the other side of Metro Line 6, Marianne d’Obey, created the day after the terrorist attack at the Bataclan, supervises the residents of the district. Mehdi Ben Cheikh prefers to gain height to contemplate the village of vaporized characters that are forming. ” I make small arrangements with the caretakers of the building. They assign me doubles to observe the facades “. Go to the thirteenth floor.” I can see it more clearly from here. It reminds me of my childhood in Tunisia. We ran from roof to roof to find our friends “.

We take the same thing and start again

Mother’s house is less than twenty minutes’ walk from the boulevard. Between exhibitions and a celebration of art outside the walls, the Itinerrance gallery has been directed by Mehdi Ben Sheikh since 2004. It is in this remarkable space that ideas burst forth like drops of paint from aerosol cans. As a guardian of this temple of street art, a giant graffiti surmounts it: “ To paint is to love again » (« To paint is to love again »). Layers of color overlap, creating a gradient from pink to blue, signature colorsThis is living. ” He was also in Jerbahood “says the gallerist. Jerbahoodthis is a crazy projectRoaming : brings together the greatest street art in the Tunisian peninsula to create an open-air museum.

The approach, launched in 2014, resonates with Paris 13 Boulevard. My mother is Tunisian, my father is French. I have always had support in both countries. So, when one of my projects in France comes to fruition, I feel the urge to move it to Tunisia. “. But unlike Paris, there is no street art in Djerba.” In fact, the people of the village of Erriadh I glimpsed didn’t even know what it was. But slowly I was able to convince them. I made a big bet: if they weren’t satisfied with the rendering, we painted everything white “. In the summer of 2014, more than a hundred artists from about thirty nationalities held a parade.

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Many of them already “dressed” the 13th region: Hush, Add Fuel, Set, M-City. We take the same thing and start again. ” I have been managing my gallery for eighteen years. I’ve been following all these artists for a very long time, and I like giving them radically different experiences “. The straight line of Boulevard Vincent Auriol is replaced by a labyrinth of a typical village with narrow, winding streets. ” No more HLMs, vaults and domes! “, a master of ironic operations. The whiteness of Tunisian limestone seems to be the natural canvas of the best artist of the Belgian artist Roan. His jellyfish sunbathe peacefully among the abandoned ruins. Far from any anachronism, the works perfectly combine with houch, traditional buildings, jars and ceramic tiles. But in a hurry, the team did not think to prepare the walls. It turns into the side of unexpected passion: ” It was an impulsive creative gesture. However, this cost us the loss of many paintings that did not support weathering “.

“Kasbah Rock”

So, in 2019, Mehdi Ben Sheikh returned with one idea: to immortalize the works. 60 international artists have joined this new edition: Sherpad Fairey (Better known as Obey Giant), Hush, INTI, Cryptik…

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Regardless of their fame, the contribution of street artists was semi-benevolent. Mehdi Ben Sheikh was difficult about this: ” My philosophy is simple: to maintain the power of street art, everything done on the street should be free. But let’s be clear, this is also an opportunity for participants to gain popularity. Above all, a legitimate mantra for an art that seeks to extract works from classical institutions and reinvent cultural practices. At the turn of the alley, Invader’s mosaic pixels fall asleep, waiting for someone to look after them. Every passer-by has the power to become a spectator: “ There are many Libyans and Algerians who rarely encounter works of art in situ. But there they get involved in the public space, which arouses interest in them “. Walking the streets of Erriadh becomes an opportunity to sharpen your judgment. ” Everyone will give their opinion on what they see. Thanks to our project, all locals became art critics “, boasts Mehdi Ben Cheikh.

A book for every journey

Mehdi Ben Sheikh wrote two books, one book for each trip. Djerbahood 2 – an open-air street art museum, just published by Albin Michel. There is one thing that interests us: the works are presented in a series of finished, sunny photos. Why didn’t you choose to document the creative process? ” I am against the perpetual staging of street arthe answers. For example, when we present contemporary art, we would never film the artist in his studio. I prefer that we show the finished work, think about it, question it. Street art is often considered a spectacle. I want to give it the seriousness and all the praise it deserves. »

Job Djerbahood 2 – open-air street art museum is part of our selection of “beautiful books” to scroll under the tree. Gorgeous sea green fills the cover and spine” comes from the village itself. I scrubbed one of the peeling paint walls in the old synagogue. By scratching, this color appeared. Thanks to Mehdi Ben Cheikh, rusty paint is just an old memory. Cultural elitism too.

Travel Gallery, 24 bis boulevard du General Jean Simon, 75 013, Paris

Djerbahood 2 – an open-air street art museum Mehdi Ben Cheikh, Photographs by Lionel Belluteau, Albin Michel, 288 pages, €49.

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