Since the attacks in France and Belgium, the Brussels district of Molenbeek has gained notoriety as an Islamist stronghold. But little is known about the neighborhood's young and vibrant art scene. Doris Pundy reports.
"I've lived here in Molenbeek for 10 years, but I never expected that. It was a real shock," says Raphaël Cruyt, director and curator of the Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art (MIMA) in the district of Molenbeek, looking back at the attacks that hit the Brussels metro and airport nearly one month ago.
"After the attacks, it was immediately clear to us: We must now defend our project and ideas more than ever before, just as we must be ever more aware of our own prejudices," he continues. Last week, Cruyt, along with his co-director Alice Van den Abeele, opened their new museum dedicated to modern urban art in a 100-year-old former brewery in the infamous neighborhood.
The MIMA was actually scheduled to open its doors to the public a day after the attacks on March 22, in which 32 people were killed.
As with the attacks in Paris last November, those involved had direct connections to Molenbeek. Just three blocks away is the former hideout of Salah Abdeslam, a suspect arrested last month in connection with November's terrorist attacks at numerous locations in Paris.
The acts of terror have left their mark in the neighborhood. The metro station just a few minutes away from the museum is under heavy security, patrolled by groups of four soldiers wearing bulletproof vests and brandishing automatic rifles. Three armored vehicles are parked next to the station entrance.
'In the heart of Brussels'
Around 4,000 people visited the new museum on the first weekend after its opening, among them 23-year-old Molenbeek resident Monica Estebanez.
"It allows people to come and see a completely different perspective on this area, about which there are a huge number of prejudices," she told the Reuters news agency. "So I think it could be a great thing."
"We deliberately chose this location," explains Cruyt. "We were looking for a building in the heart of Brussels, and we found it." The MIMA is located along the industrial canal that separates Molenbeek from the city center - Brussels' main square, the Grand Place, is just 15 minutes by foot from the museum.
The museum is hoping to attract a young audience, with a focus on the various artistic subcultures that have thrived since the turn of the century. Urban arts like graffiti, but also sports like skateboarding and surfing, will find a home in current and future exhibits, alongside electronic music and hip-hop.
The museum's first exhibition is called "City Lights" and features five street artists from New York who came to Brussels and took over the entire building for their work - from the basement up to the third floor.
Most of the works were created directly at the museum; the classic framed tableau can only be found in the small permanent collection up on the attic level. The lower floors are dedicated entirely to the unconventional work of the New York artists.
Swoon, for example, applied her wheatpaste prints and stencils directly to the walls and columns of the basement, creating a complex installation that takes the visitor on a journey of discovery through the dark, labyrinthine basement of the former brewery.
Two floors above, Maya Hayuk was able to take full advantage of the space by replacing the windows with colored panes of glass and covering wide swathes of the surfaces with bold, colorful patterns. The smell of fresh paint still hangs in the air. The dreariness of dilapidated apartment buildings, vacant businesses and basement mosques typical to Molenbeek seems miles away.
"We're trying to build a bridge between worlds," explains Elke Van den Bergh, program coordinator at the nearby Maison des Cultures. For over a decade, the Molenbeek cultural center has provided creative workshops for local children and young people. She fully supports the new museum. "Without the local artists in Molenbeek, our center could not exist. They run our courses and develop new project ideas," says Van den Bergh.
The cultural center is constantly updating its program. "We attach great importance to the fact that children can always learn something new. We want them to discover how rich this world is," says Van den Bergh.
That strategy appears to be working. "We constantly come across children who don't know they can dance or draw, for example - and that they enjoy it," says Van den Bergh. She says culture and creativity are important tools to keep children and youth out of trouble.
In a recent interview with the French newspaper "Le Monde," Molenbeek Mayor Francoise Schepmans accused the artists living in Molenbeek of failing to make a commitment to their neighborhood.
"People shouldn't romanticize the job of the artist," says Charles, a young Belgian video artist who has lived in Molenbeek for several years. "There are art forms which aren't suitable for cooperation with the residents. And to be honest, for many of us money is often scarce. We tend to automatically look for projects that are well paid."
Van den Bergh, however, doesn't share Schepmans' criticism. "Of course, it all depends on an artist's personal goals and attitude. But we work together very well with many local artists," she insists.
"We have many future projects in mind, and have already been in contact with the Molenbeek administration about them," Cruyt, the museum director, tells DW. He knows it will be difficult to establish a good relationship to the residents of Molenbeek. "Terrorism has destroyed much trust on both sides. But we're doing our best to make our museum as open as possible."
Cruyt has a clear goal in mind for MIMA. "[This neighborhood] is different than everyone thinks, and I hope that the museum will become part of the identity of Molenbeek."