For the past ten years, an artist in shorts and sneakers has been coming to the homes of the world's disenfranchised, and leaving behind brightly colored murals on the walls around words like "Life" or "Peace. "The goal is to paint the words of people who never have a voice," says French-British muralist Seb Toussaint.
The 35-year-old artist, who looks like a footballer, has just attacked the "Future" in the dusty district of Zaatar, in the suburbs of Nouakchott in Mauritania. He and his two traveling companions have covered the side of a rickety shack with white, and separated large blue and pink spaces.
Within two or three days, the attentive reader will discern the letters composing Almoustaghbal (Future) in Arabic on a mural that would not be out of place in the capitals of street art: large colorful motifs, figurative or geometric or both, undulating or static.
The painting will be the pride of the shack's owner for 10 years, if it lasts that long. And the countless kids who will have grown up in the meantime will remember the three strangers who came from nowhere to kick the ball with them in the bumpy roads among the donkeys and goats, then put colors and words on their shacks of planks or cinder blocks.
Since 2013, Seb Toussaint has covered cement, sheet metal or wood with verbal protrusions in different languages and alphabets, such as "Humanity" in the Palestinian Territories, "Change" in Nepal, "Freedom" in Iraq.
Living from his work in Europe, he self-finances one-month stays in shanty towns or refugee camps and offers to paint their wall. It is up to the owner to choose a word that the panel will highlight.
This is the "Share The Word" project, inspired in part, he says, by his grandmother's ordeal under the German occupation during the Second World War in Normandy (northwestern France). He started out making tifos for a group of soccer fans and graffiti artists around Caen, but was confronted with the realities of the world while cycling around the globe a decade ago.
Upon arriving in Zaatar in early January, "we played soccer with the kids. I explained (around) in broken Arabic that the goal was to paint houses. One person said: 'I want you to paint my house'.
- Ephemeral -
"We never had a refusal," he says. Some mishaps, of course. The enigmatic Doudou, a long-time companion, was taken hostage for 24 hours and released for ransom in the Ivory Coast. Everywhere, there may be some initial reluctance.
"The important thing is to know if people have good intentions. We quickly realized that they had good intentions," says Amar Mohamed Mahmoud, a 52-year-old fisherman who chews a root to pick his teeth.
He agreed to have his shack decorated with "the Chamelle", a rare animal representation in tones of fawn and blue.
Since then, there has been "Mom", "Youth", "Friends"... Eight murals in all, bright panels in a shanty town parched by the sun where two last acacias suffocate in the salt-saturated ground.
Seb Toussaint calculates that he has spread 222 polychrome apostrophes throughout the world. His meeting sponsors have a pronounced taste for "Peace" or "Love". Some words stay for years, others pass. The rain, the wind.
"Love", "Dream" and "Kobane", the Syrian city, have disappeared with the dismantling of a camp near Calais (northern France), from where migrants seek to reach England.
Seb Toussaint takes modest pride in helping to draw attention to the forgotten. His murals were used as a backdrop for a fashion shoot in Nepal. Mohamed Boilil, another resident of Zaatar, wants to hope that the authorities will stop "abandoning them to (their) fate".
Young women with shimmering veils crowd around the draft of "Future" despite the overwhelming light. They know that the departure of those who are now called only Seb, Doudou and Abdul Malek is near. "You still have my house to do," one says to Seb Toussaint.
"There are people we'll miss because we're with them all the time. They bring us milk, tea, every lunchtime they invited us to eat," the artist relates.
"We bring something, but in return we receive a lot".