Do you think Paris has changed?

Claire Courdavault in conversation
Feminist art is changing the cityscape

The artist Claire Courdavault is painting a huge fresco with the women of the Goutte-d'Or district in Paris. Their goal: to give women more space in public spaces.

We meet in a small café on rue de la Goutte d‘Or in the 18th arrondissement of Paris. Claire Courdavault justifies the choice of the meeting point that you cannot start the day without coffee. At the end of 2017, the 31-year-old artist painted a 30-meter-long fresco for and with the women of the quarter for several weeks here, less than ten meters away. It is a commissioned work for the city administration, but at the same time it is above all a homage to these women who want to take their place in the still male-dominated public space.

Stefanie Eisenreich:Hello Claire! Here in this street you painted an enormous fresco with and for the women of this quarter. How did you come up with the idea?

Claire Courdavault: I responded to a tender from the city administration. The wooden palisade on which I painted the fresco was erected at the request of the residents after several joint meetings to design the quarter. And since this is one of the many quarters that are still heavily dominated by men, I quickly had the idea of ​​giving the women back a place in public space with the fresco. Hence the idea of ​​the strong female figures that can be seen in the fresco. I also call them the guardians or protectors.

“They live and watch on these walls,” it says at one point in this fresco. What is meant are the mythical and real female figures depicted on the 30 meter long wooden palisade. Among them Patchamamma, mother earth from Indian mythology. Or Vassilissa, a strong female figure from Russian fairy tales. In addition, Marie Marvingt flies through the picture on a dragonfly. In 1909, the French pilot was the first woman to fly a balloon over the North Sea to England. Not far from her is Kahina, a famous Berber queen from the 7th century. "The spider in the middle," explains Claire, "symbolizes unity and feminine creative power."
  • Fresco: Claire Courdavault; Photo: Stefanie Eisenreich
    The fresco, which measures almost 30 meters in total, is located in the Goutte-d'Or district.
  • Fresco: © Claire Courdavault; Photo: Stefanie Eisenreich
    The fresco begins with this inscription. It refers to the strong female figures that have found their place on this wall.
  • Fresco: © Claire Courdavault; Photo: Stefanie Eisenreich
    On the right Kahina, famous Berber queen of the 7th century.
  • Fresco: © Claire Courdavault; Photo: Stefanie Eisenreich
    The artist in front of Patchamma, the central woman of the work of art.
  • Fresco: © Claire Courdavault; Photo: Stefanie Eisenreich
    Here the symbol of the witch who plays an important role in the eco-feminism movement.
  • Photo: Stefanie Eisenreich
    Claire Courdavault in her workshop on rue Garibaldi in Montreuil. She shares it with the artist collective “Le Jardin d'Alice”.
  • Fresco: © Claire Courdavault; Photo: Stefanie Eisenreich
    The fresco was first designed on paper before it found its place on the wall.
  • Fresco: © Claire Courdavault; Photo: Stefanie Eisenreich
    Marie Marvingt on a dragonfly.
  • Fresco: © Claire Courdavault; Photo: Stefanie Eisenreich
    The spider symbolizes unity and feminine strength.
  • Fresco: © Claire Courdavault; Photo: Stefanie Eisenreich
    A man walks past Vassalisa, a strong woman from Russian tales.
  • Photo: Stefanie Eisenreich
    Claire Courdavault in her workshop, where she is already working on other projects.

"Most of them were happy."

And what about the men? How did they react when you started working on the fresco?

Ah, here in this neighborhood you meet almost exclusively men. So there were so many different reactions! For example, you asked me why I don't paint men, of course. Sometimes when I work on the street I get called a slut. But here most of them were actually happy that the fresco brings a bit of color to their neighborhood.

Do you think the street art scene is a very male dominated area?

Yes, as before. It's pretty intense, as is generally the case in these professional milieus that are dominated by men. There is a mixture of ignorance, contempt and paternalism. In the street art scene this is quite subtle. It's more of an area where you like to be cool and relaxed. But it has already happened to me that I've worked with an artist, and during the entire work on the joint project, I was invisible to the eyes of the others who were there.

If you do a little research, you quickly get the impression that there are many hidden conflicts of this kind in the art scene ...

Oh yeah! It reminds me of a magazine called Gonzine. The artist Sarah Fist’Hole founded it to highlight the work of the draftsmen and to offer them a platform. These women have a lot of trouble getting published, getting good contracts, or even being taken seriously. It is very rare for women to progress and achieve success in these areas as quickly as men.

Is the act of drawing like a performance for you or something very intimate?

Both. In the case of street art, you consciously choose to step out of the intimate because you work on the street. But it is extremely intimate to choose the location and the motive, to do so in front of everyone's eyes and to be in constant interaction with an audience. But I am convinced that it is also a political act to make the intimate visible. This definitely applies to my art, which I associate very much with my feminist ideals.

Hence the choice of women as the central figure in your works?

I've always been fascinated by the fate of strong women. When I was little, I asked myself a thousand questions about all of these inequalities. Why should women not be able to do something? I'm very interested in ecofeminism, a movement that arose in the USA in the 1960s and combines feminism with ecological ideals. The women of this movement appropriated the figure of the witch anew and want to understand how it could come to the oppression of women in history. They practice rites of emancipation to give themselves strength. For me, using these symbols also means emancipating yourself anew through art.

"It is impossible for me to do nothing."

Do you think that these frescoes or similar actions can change something and give women a bigger place in public as well as in the art scene?

I am convinced of that. Actions like this fresco always change something, even if it's just a tiny drop in a vast ocean. In any case, it is impossible for me to do nothing. I want to use my hands to create beautiful things and to enable a different way of looking at things. We must not forget that in the history of art women have been repeatedly degraded or even put in psychiatry. It was not until the 1940s that this relaxed a little and there, too, the work of women, who at that time were primarily muses or models, was not recognized.
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