Human Soul – an innovative, interactive art project with its origins in southeast Asia – is currently hosted by The Salvation Army’s La Cité de Refuge shelter in Paris, France. The year-long partnership with the centre strikingly recounts the stories of ‘invisible and forgotten’ members of vulnerable communities, using a variety of artistic techniques – from portraits to illuminated light boxes and large-scale installations to contemporary collage. Staff, residents and volunteers at the refuge have been enthusiastic to participate.
Curated and spearheaded by artists Anne-Laure Maison and Michel Cam, the concept was first developed in The Philippines and has travelled the world. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the artists have modified the project and are drawing inspiration from the often-challenging journeys of the residents of The Salvation Army’s shelter. Depictions of service users’ life stories now adorn the interior and exterior walls of the refuge, which was itself designed by renowned modernist architect Le Corbusier in the 1930s.
The use of multiple art forms encourages collaboration and opening up, enabling people to share often deeply personal stories in a safe and nurturing context. Speaking to France 24 about the terrifying life experiences that inspired his artwork, shelter resident Alexandre said: ‘I used to compete in fire breathing competitions – I inhaled a flame, and that’s how I lost my lung. One night I was playing dominoes and met Anne-Laure and Michel – that’s how I came to have my portrait done at La Cité de Refuge.
Aguieratou, originally from Burkina Faso, is another service user represented in the artwork. She proudly points to her country’s red, yellow and green flag as she explains ‘when there are activities like this with artists, it’s an opportunity for us to get together, to get to know each other and talk. I think it’s a great project.’
Centre manager Christophe Piedra says of the collaboration: ‘We consider the Human Soul initiative to be a long-term project, since both artists will live in the centre for a year. It was important for us to conceive it as an overall part of the social work. Service users have led multiple different lives and this project is a way to show that they are much more than “people in need”.
‘This project is one of the first to involve so many of them. Many service users wanted to be part of it, because they felt it was a fantastic way to express – without necessarily using words – who they really are and what shaped them to be this way.’
From a report by France and Belgium Territory, with additional reporting by France 24