In late May, the Parisian gallery, Mains d’Oeuvres, opened its doors and welcomed unaccompanied migrant minors for eleven days. The cultural space, situated in the Paris suburb of Saint-Ouen, became a temporary safe haven for around two dozen unaccompanied migrants aged 14–17. The young migrants, from countries including Senegal, Somalia, Guinea, and Angola, helped the organisers prepare dinner, played games, and, most importantly, had a roof over their heads in a safe and comfortable environment.
The project was inspired by artist Yvan Loiseau, who had previously exhibited a photo series wherein he cooked meals for several families he met in Saint-Ouen at Mains d’Oeuvres. Loiseau wanted to expand the project after meeting Agathe Nadimi, founder of Les Midis du Mie, or ‘Lunch for Foreign Unaccompanied Minors’, which provides meals and support for unaccompanied migrant minors. With this project, Loiseau ‘sought to blur the lines between artists and citizens’. According to Loiseau, ‘cooking a meal together allows us to get to know one another in a meaningful way. I’ve seen migrants sleeping in the streets, and I wanted to create an open space where we could respond to some of the issues in our society ...The moments you share during a meal can seem trivial at first, but they deepen very quickly once you start talking about your families and the places where you grew up. It’s easy to talk about people when you haven’t met them. This was a chance to talk to them and to confront the prejudices we have about who they are and where they come from’.
As unaccompanied migrant minors continue to face significant obstacles in France, the gallery’s ‘Simple Act of Humanity’ project could not have come at a better time; France has experienced a steady flow of migrants arriving to the country in recent years, but the rate of unaccompanied refugee and migrant minors has rapidly increase. In 2018, France registered 40,000 unaccompanied minors, reportedly three times more than the previous two years. As these minors often lack documentation, they are recognised as adults, and therefore do not receive the government support normally given to minors. In March, French authorities reportedly conducted a ‘controversial bone test’ to establish the age of some migrants.
According to Nadimi, many of the youth who stayed at the gallery had their applications rejected and some were still awaiting a court hearing or decision. She further explained that ‘some [of the minors] were rejected after their evaluation, and some are trying to send in applications but don’t have their papers’. She also emphasised that she has no doubt that these people are minors who should be taken in by the state and provided with the adequate support that they are entitled to as minors.
The gallery previously hosted and accommodated several families for 18 months. However, ‘A Simple Act of Humanity’ was the first time an artist had made such a request. The gallery’s director called it ‘an intimate experience, but at the same time refreshing to see that an artistic work could have a concrete impact like this on people’. The project is envisaged to continue in September.