Zoo Project – Wild Homage
Camille Soler / France
Camille Soler / France
To bring word forth from cement...this seems to have been the goal relentlessly sought by Bilal Berreni, known to the art world as Zoo Project, a life too short as a free artist, engaged and uncompromising. A portrait.
Painting a wall is a little bit like raising the curtain, it is a way to break through, to peer in on the world, and to question it. It is the primordial act that places us among humans.
To bring word forth from cement...this seems to have been the goal relentlessly sought by Bilal Berreni, known to the art world as Zoo Project, a life too short as a free artist, engaged and uncompromising.
“If silence is golden, sound is cement.”
Walls, for Zoo Project, were more than just mere expressive medium, they were the best way to connect directly with one another: “I began painting on the walls of my city, in my neighborhood. For me art has to be in direct contact with the viewer, it must be live art, that disturbs, that unsettles, that questions...In France it seems to me that art has lost its folk character and that it has become for a limited audience. But it is the artist, I believe, who must strive to reach the public, not the other way around. This is what I have tried to do with my paintings: initiate a dialogue with passersby, to push them to react.”
In this way hybrid creatures were awakened on the walls of Paris, these creatures gave life to a kind of mythology of the rebirth, in black and white - Bilal was colorblind and couldn’t distinguish colors - come to question, surprise, and, finally, to move the viewer with regard to their own fate.
“No longer here, but over there.”
Father of Algerian descent, art director of a Parisian theater; maternal grandfather a Resistance leader (Charles Sarlandie), Bilal was a bridge between Paris and its suburb, as he was for the West and the East. His ink flowed directly from past and present conflicts and from their grievous consequences.
After having made poetry of the urban fervor in the northeast of Paris, where no one was able to ignore his enraging messages, at 20 years of age Zoo Project moved to Tunis, where the Jasmine Revolution had just taken off. “They go to breathe the smell of revolution in the wind”, he had said to his parents. In the Hafsia neighborhood he heard of an uncle, a brother, a neighbor missing: he must immediately depict them. This is how the figures of martyrs of the revolution stand out against life size cartoons, figures that the artist would show in various corners of the city.
Zoo Project continues his journey towards the frontlines with Libya and he places his tent in the refugee camp of Choucha, where he begins to draw a foot here, a face there. People of the camp visit him in greater and greater numbers. They all want a portrait, and he makes them on cotton canvases found on the street. In doing so he understands that his approach, more instinctive than intellectual, is giving a little bit of dignity back to those who have lost everything. When the news and social media notice him, Bilal is already far away. Burrowed away in the height of winter, at 30 below, in a hut deep in Laponia, he is working on a graphic novel to tell of his unusual experiences...
Numerous other trips have marked his journey, before he met the director Antoine Page in 2010. Animated by the same adventurous spirit, the two artists naturally find themselves circling a common objective: filming a road-movie through Europe and the ex-Soviet Union, through to Siberia. A Mercedes truck, eight countries, 15,597 kilometers, six breakdowns, 17 arrests, 16 corruptions, eight busses, one airplane, 12 trains, four carts...who else could say with a smidge of pride to have lived so many experiences in such a short time? It is the beginning of a collaborative relationship that will last three years.
With his bucket of paint on his back and his white sweatsuit, this character we are following really seems like an space explorer, wild, curious, contemplative.
The movie, its title inspired by L'Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze (“Gilles Deleuze's alphabet book”), invites us to contemplate the world; a world of beauties, simple but complex, through the solitary and quiet eye of this tireless draftsman, hungry for direction and chased by the urgency to discover the planet and its inhabitants.
Some months later, he will choose Detroit as his source of inspiration, which will however mark the epilogue of his existence. It happened during his third day in the fierce city, where he called himself Billy the Cat. His father tells: “As far as I could understand, he was interested in everything that can be born from chaos, which for him represented the failing of capitalism”.
In July of 2013 Bilal disappears, but his roommate doesn’t report him missing: it surely wasn’t the first time that he disappeared with a trace, to then reappear somewhere entirely unexpected.
When his body is discovered, in March 2014 rivers of ink flow: attacked by four armed young men, to rob him of the money he so greatly despised. His death was widely covered by blogs, websites, and newspapers, colorful halos appear on his black paintings in Paris.
“To be interesting, you have to stay free”
As if guided by the need to unleash something, to light a spark of life in the eyes of passersby, Bilal testified in his own way to the absurdities of our time, of a civilization held hostage. Zoo Project had turned his back on the commodification of his work and ignored the idea of posterity. He once told a Parisian gallery owner who had offered to organize a show of his work: “I can paint the whole facade of your gallery, I don’t see why I should be contained within its walls”.
And so, through which perspective can we now experience his art, still so extensive? “In Paris several of his works remain, the city authorities have removed many of them. In Russia people observe his work: if they appreciate it, they preserve it”.
What remains, above all, is the passion for drawing that Bilal has transmitted in these places he passed through, where so many have begun to draw after his departure for new shores.
A wild homage
Especially now that Street Art has become institutionalized, one can’t help but appreciate the shared desire of Antoine Page and Lilas Carpentier to pay homage to the work of Zoo Project with the utmost respect for his personality and his approach. “Relying only on volunteer work, we have decided to relive his free spirit, his creativity and independence”.
Together they have given life to the association La Maison du Directeur (The Home of the Director) and they have convinced people close to him - his friends, his collaborators, and his family - to contribute to the release, in Spring 2018, of a version of his animated film, imagined for a younger audience, one hour and ten minutes long. Their project also consists of the publication of an eight volume box set dedicated to his works, and the installation of an exhibition that will try to give them new readings.
During their road trip, Antoine and Bilal stayed in Odessa for a month, where they put forth an installation on the famous Potemkin Stairs, an obvious reference to the famous scene of the film Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein’s masterpiece. The initial project foresaw the creation of a diptych and also installing the works on the steps of the Saint Charles station in Marseille, Odessa’s twin city.
The box set will contain eight volumes dedicated to a lesser known side of the artist’s work. Street Art will certainly be included, thanks to photographs that will be collected, but above all there will be space for his sketches and for other projects that he was unable to finish: “The format will adapt each time to the project. There will not be a real chronology of his work. He always had so many ideas, from one idea another would be born, and we would like to maintain this fluidity: staying on the side of prolificacy, of the multiplicity of technique and so on, that was his”.
To ensure free access to anyone, of the box set only 1000 copies will be produced, but these will be distributed exclusively in places of public consultation, in France and abroad (centers of scholastic documentation, university libraries, public archives, etc.). “He himself spent lots of time in public archives. The idea is to make his work accessible to anyone at any time”, Antoine explains.
So the only thing left to do is wish this project an even greater notoriety on social media, than that which the news of his tragic demise has received. To support the initiative, which will launch in Spring 2018, you may contribute on the Ulele platform https://fr.ulule.com/zoo-project-hommage/ by September 20th. Those of you who wish to do so after that date, can make a direct donation through the project website https://www.zoo-project.com/hommage/nous-aider/. And from now on, go out with an open heart: raise your head and let the walls fall. Simply, look at them.
English translation by Sidney Cavaricci-WhiteTweet