A postcard from Brussels

Benoit tearI’ve always loved travelling through Maelbeek metro station, as I often do when staying at my regular apartment in Brussels, going from local stop Merode towards the centre. Until yesterday Maelbeek was most distinguished for its fabulous station artwork, completed in 2001 by the Belgian artist Benoît van Innis.   This series of 8 faces would gaze benignly from the white tiled walls, deceptively simple line drawings fired in ceramic.  They look at first glance like someone has drawn them on with a marker.

Benoît’s faces, echoes and anticipations of the passing commuters who stared blankly back at them on a daily basis, have been a reassuring presence on this route through the EU quarter.  They are also a symbol of the city’s cosmopolitanism, with their sparse detail sufficient to suggest diversity and their open expressions inviting self-identification.  I found myself looking for their images on the internet last night. For me they now stand also for those whose journey ended at Maelbeek so grimly yesterday.  I know many of my friends have wished, in their kindness, that I wasn’t in Brussels at this moment, but in fact I am glad to be here. Those who know me well know I’ve long loved this city for many reasons – eccentric, problematic and sometimes misrepresented as it is.  Being here, I feel that I can stand with the city for a moment, in however small a way. I love it more than ever.

Brussels was holding a minute’s silence at noon today. I walked down to Parc du Cinquantenaire, close to where I am staying, thinking that it might be a gathering point.  In fact there was hardly anyone there.  The main focus was at Place de la Bourse in the centre, where locals and tourists have been covering the pavements with chalked messages of solidarity and the flags of many nations.  I’ll probably go down there later. At Cinquantenaire there were also messages in chalk, slightly rained on since yesterday (it being Brussels) but mostly legible. Among them was a little pink heart, unfinished – or perhaps broken – where someone had run out of chalk. WP_20160323_002[1]I found a scrap of red in the gravel, just enough to complete it, to try to make it whole.  Then I stood with my stained fingers under the memorial arch, alone except for the Belgian flag above me. I removed my hat and gazed ahead, along the length of the park, along the great, straight vista of Rue de la Loi leading to the heart of the city and on which Maelbeek station lies wounded.  A handful of other people began to stop and to read the graffiti.  It was of course far from silent. A police helicopter droned constantly over the Schumann area. Unseen bells chimed, distant and muffled.

Yesterday I spent the day with a thoughtful and passionate group of artists and cultural organisers from all over Europe and elsewhere.  We were there for an ENCATC masterclass on European Cultural Leadership and arrived just as the news was breaking. As the city locked down there was nothing for us to do but stay put and start talking. Despite the hideous circumstances we had some inspiring conversations, as so often happens with international groups in Brussels, whilst each exchanging our messages with home. A young Lebanese woman, who now lives in Paris, smiled ironically about again having to assure her parents in Beirut that she was safe in Western Europe.  An Egyptian colleague talked of learning to continue living and acting creatively in the face of atrocity. We also talked about the need to have solidarity with those affected with violence elsewhere, the need to respond with humanity and love rather than fear and fences. This task is harder than ever today, but it is about how we think and it is therefore a task that must be addressed through culture.  As artists and makers we can only begin through our own forms of expression, which seem so weak in the face of the horrors of the world but which are so vital for the human spirit.  This morning Benoît published in La Libre Belgique a reproduction of one of his Maelbeek faces, a single tear added to its cheek.  These few fragile lines mean more to me than all the flags, ‘firm responses’ and official condolences. So too a little pink heart which will soon wash away with the rain.

Today it seems to me that the world is divided between those who have blood on their hands and those who have chalk on their hands. My beautiful friends, all you artists, thinkers and performers, you are needed now more than ever.  Daub the world in your many colours of chalk. Draw for life. Dance for life. Write for life. Sing for life. Act for life.

JP 

Comments

  1. Reblogged this on CHRIS FREMANTLE and commented:

    From Jon Price in Brussels

  2. Jon – this is a very beautiful and touching insight into what is happening. Many thanks – we will most certainly keep drawing, dancing, writing and singing for our lives. Our thoughts and hearts are with the citizens of Brussels and Belgium at this present moment.

  3. Thanks for those words Jon. Very much appreciated. And great graffiti, I agree!

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