Bart Lodewijks Molenbeek Drawings
In early Spring I spent a few months drawing with coloured chalk on the walls of the brand-new Bambino day-care centre in Molenbeek, Belgium.* Toward the end of each day I was assisted by Max, a seven-year-old boy with straight, brown hair coming to pick up his little brother. I would ask him for colour advice. On his instructions, I drew green, yellow, purple, red and orange chalk shapes in the stairwell. ‘I know a whole lot,’ the smarty-boots said. Some of the children saw a rising or setting sun in the colour shapes, but Max spied a small dinosaur – which is not so crazy when you learn what he once found in his garden.
* Molenbeek is one of nineteen municipalities in the BrusselsCapital Region. The population density per square kilometre there is twice as high as the average for Brussels. Eighty per cent of its inhabitants are of foreign extraction. It is the most colourful municipality in Belgium.
A Fairytale for Bambino Day-Care Centre
Drawing with chalk* – that is something toddlers do Toddlers develop many times faster than adults If adults developed as quickly as toddlers They would all be geniuses
* The Dutch word for ‘to chalk’, krijten, is the same as an antiquated Dutch verb that means to cry out loudly or to shriek, for example: ‘De zuigeling heeft nog lang van de pijn gekreten’ (The infant shrieked from the pain for a long time). When you drag a piece of chalk across a smooth surface the wrong way, you get a skin-crawling, screechy sound. Research has shown that this ear-splitting noise has the same frequency as that of a crying baby or human scream. 2
Green, yellow, purple, red and orange chalk shapes Over the course of three months I draw on the walls of the brand-new Bambino day-care centre in Molenbeek. The building is the crowning achievement for Miss Rita, who has ruled the roost here since December 1972. She is one in a million, and we hit it off immediately. ‘The drawings are the last thing that needs to happen,’ she says. ‘Then I can retire. After forty-eight years, it will finally be complete.’ ‘I was born a month before you started working at Bambino,’ I say. ‘What a coincidence,’ Rita replies. ‘In the month before I started at Bambino, I stumbled across my future husband.’ She gives me a tour of the day-care centre and tells me about the children and her marriage. ‘When I met my husband for the first time, I let him know I thought he was arrogant. That piqued his interest,’ she giggles. ‘Shortly after that we got married and had two children. He passed away eleven years ago. I still miss him every day, but fortunately I have Bambino.’ ‘It’s an honour to be the first person allowed to draw on the new building,’ I say when the tour is over. She responds, ‘Did you know that the building was designed by the dads?’ What does she mean? I look at her in surprise. ‘I chatted with some of the dads I knew were architects. Their kids, who are bigger now, were still crawlers at the time. And here we are four years later. The story of the renovation starts with the dads. They designed the building and oversaw the whole process,’ she explains. 3
‘I would also like to create a story that starts here,’ I say, ‘a special story for the little ones.’ ‘They’re pretty young for that,’ says Rita. ‘Some of them can only scream or say “mummy” and “daddy”. I have one advanced child in my group who calls me Grandma. His name is Elliot. He’s always picked up by his mum and his brother Max; you’re bound to run into them.’ Mummy, daddy, grandma, grandpa… A child’s first words are the most important; there is a story in that. But when I hear how loudly the crawlers shriek, my spirits sink: I could never be heard above that. ‘Would you be able to use coloured chalk instead of white and draw rounded shapes instead of straight ones? That would better suit the children’s experiential world,’ Rita says. ‘The drawings will be colourful and round,’ I promise, because she asks, though I am a bit apprehensive. I have never done ‘colourful and round’. I start by drawing in the common space on the ground floor and continue on up into the stairwell – one step higher each day. Elliot is about one-and-a-half and he calls me Grandpa and observes me intently as I work. He does this every afternoon while the other children are sleeping – stony-faced, unobtrusive, without making the slightest peep. Even when he is not at his post, I feel his critical gaze piercing into my back. With their colours and curves, the drawings look different than what I am used to, even though every line is straight, same as always. I wonder to myself how I am able to pull it off. Could it 4
be thanks to the tiny genius looking over my shoulder? The toddlers allow fantasy ships and dream clouds free passage into their world. Their parents drop them off at Bambino in the morning and pick them up in the late afternoon. At those times of day it is so noisy that I am unable to concentrate on drawing, so I hang around and strike up conversations. I gradually come to know the mummies and daddies, the grandmas and grandpas, the sisters and brothers. Seven-year-old Max waits impatiently every afternoon for his mother to bring out his brother Elliot. ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I ask him one day. ‘Palaeontologist,’ he answers. ‘P A L A E O N T O L O G I S T,’ I repeat solemnly. ‘Do you mean a dinosaur expert?’ ‘I once dug up a dinosaur skull in our garden: a small skull, about as big as a chicken’s head,’ he says.
The first lines I make on the walls are with masking tape, so as to get a grasp on the building.
The long, horizontal lines are lines of poetry without words. To lighten up the orange volume, I leave a particularly wide line blank just above the middle.
‘It’s almost my birthday and I’m tired of waiting for mummy,’ Max says.
‘I want to be a palaeontologist when I grow up,’ he says unabashedly. That is quite a mouthful for a child. What a clever little guy, I think to myself. 11
‘Should the shape at the back be light green or dark green?’ I wonder aloud. ‘Dark green,’ he says decidedly. I follow his advice without hesitation.
I turn around and see that Max is still there. ‘Hey, you’re still here,’ I say in surprise. He looks at me and says, ‘I know a whole lot.’
‘The skull Max found in our garden is from a chicken. We buried it there for him,’ Max’s mother confides to me. ‘Chickens are tiny dinosaurs,’ I reply, in defence of the little palaeontologist.
Rita, the group leaders, and the fathers and mothers coming to pick up their offspring all see either a sunrise or a sunset in the drawing.
Only Max recognizes it as a solar eclipse.
‘The cut-out parts allow one to see something else in the drawing besides a sun,’ I say. He cocks his head and says, ‘It could also be a dinosaur.’ ‘Or a chicken,’ I quip.
‘A few years ago we had a Syrian girl here who didn’t speak a word of Dutch, French or English. Her mother was fifteen years old,’ group leader Damla tells me.
‘One day the Syrian child pointed to the ladybirds on my earlobes. “Earring,” I said. “E a r r i n g,” she repeated in her little child’s voice. It must have been her first Dutch word [oorbel].’
Damla continues the story: ‘She was here for five months. On her last day she came up to me to say goodbye and pointed proudly to her earlobes. She was wearing purple earrings, not ladybirds, but still, earrings. Her mother thanked me and then suddenly said, “E A R R I N G.” She had never said a word to me before that. I was deeply touched.’
The Syrian girl was there briefly and then swallowed back up into the march of time.
There is no way to know whether life falls inside or outside the lines, I think to myself as I draw.
I drive home under a starry sky, the Milky Way a streak of chalk on an old blackboard.
At the top of the stairwell, I draw a red circle wedged between the two walls.
Max comes to take a look and says excitedly that this is a real solar eclipse.
Elliot, too, can see the circles clearly from his post.
‘There’s no reason anymore to keep standing still,’ I say to Elliot. ‘If you take a step to the left, the orange circle glides over the red sun. If you stand right in front of the circles, they slide over each other.’
Elliot cocks his head to take in the drawing. I take a step to the left, and he copies me. ‘Dino,’ he says, pointing to the circles.
The red circle returns as an echo in the stairwell leading to the basement.
The first and last drawings meet in the common area on the ground floor. ‘The chain is finally complete,’ Rita says.
Max comes walking up to me. ‘Where were you?’ he asks impatiently. ‘Listen,’ I say, ‘there’s a story about a dinosaur that goes with the drawings.’ He takes a seat on one of the steps and says, ‘I have some time.’ ‘Once upon a time there was a chicken,’ I begin. ‘A chicken?’ He looks at me puzzled. ‘Yeah, a tiny dinosaur,’ I say with a wink. ‘You want to be a palaeontologist when you grow up, right?’ He nods in agreement. ‘Once upon a time there was a chicken,’ I start again, ‘and that chicken was madly in love with a cock.’ Max raises his eyebrows doubtfully. ‘The cock loved to flaunt himself from the top of the highest building around. He had gold feathers that gleamed in the sun.’ ‘Know where he was standing, Max?’ ‘No. Who, the cock?’ He thinks for a minute and says, ‘On your house?’ ‘Wrong,’ I say. ‘The cock was standing on top of the spire of a church tower. A steeple so high he seemed unreachable. Every day the chicken would flap her short little wings in the hopes of flying up and landing next to her cock. But she was not exactly a high flyer. Sometimes, she would flutter passionately up about three-feet high and then tumble clumsily back down into the dirt, soil her feathers and need the whole day to make herself presentable again. The cock sat there on the steeple, completely unapproachable, evidently not caring a whit about her earthly supplications. Finally, one day she mustered up all her courage. When her girlfriends were roosting, she slipped into the church tower through a window. It took a minute for her eyes to adjust to the darkness; she couldn’t see where to put her plump chicken feet or even where the spiral staircase started.’ 39
‘Kind of like Donald Duck,’ Max says delightedly. ‘Even clumsier than Donald Duck,’ I reply. ‘She felt her way slowly and started climbing the spiral staircase, her heart beating in her throat. Each time she passed a window and looked outside, she could see the world growing smaller. “Strange that everything is smaller except me,” she said to herself. For the first time in her life, she felt elevated above her friends. “I am big and strong, braver than the rest,” she whispered to herself to keep up her courage, but inside she was trembling. Suddenly the stairs stopped, as if she had reached the end of the world. Her dream seemed to shatter before her, and she felt small and vulnerable. Yet, because she had studied the tower so often, she remembered that the top window was just under the gutters. She wanted to get to the cock so badly nothing could stand in her way. But when she stuck her little chicken head out the window, she got the shock of her life. The cock had become incredibly huge. From the ground, he looked like a small, sweet, golden cock, but now he was gigantic. She could barely comprehend the change. He glittered in the sun, his chest thrust proudly forward. “Mr Cock, I’m coming!” she yelled. He didn’t hear her, apparently, or was pretending not to, because he remained stock-still on his post. “Well now,” she thought, “I would have thought I had earned at least a slight acknowledgment,” but she didn’t dare say that out loud for fear he would reject her. So instead, she said in a somewhat pointed, though not deliberately harsh, tone, “Mr Cock, wait there!” and climbed resolutely up onto the gutter.’ ‘Bet she’s going to fall,’ says Max. 40
‘She didn’t dare look down. She had heard that circus acrobats have a safety net to catch them if they fall... but there was no safety net waiting for her: “I’m not a circus artist, just a clumsy chicken.” The cock was now even bigger than before; he had a majestic wattle hanging under his beak, and she had never seen such a magnificent comb. “Mr Cock, wait there!” she said loud and clear. The cock didn’t move a quill. He was listening to her! She started climbing onto the slate roof with renewed confidence. The smooth slate stones were held in place with little iron clips, and she was able to easily clamp onto them with her claws and use them to hoist herself upward with her beak. Every now and then, though, she would slip from exhaustion. Her feet were made to clamp onto a branch, not climb up a steep roof. On her perch, she could sleep the entire night through on one leg: shitting, eating and dreaming about a future husband or her career. Easy enough to chart out her life from a perch, but balancing on a roof was another kettle of fish. She just had to have faith the cock wouldn’t fly away before she got to him and keep concentrating on her feet. “It is rather strange, though, that he doesn’t notice me at all,” she thought. The slate stones were warming up in the sun; for a moment, that felt nice under her aching feet, but it quickly started to burn. She felt a sense of urgency and shot a sideways glance upward to make sure the cock was still in his place. Yup, he was still there, triumphant and unfazed, as if the Adonis could not care less about her visit. “Arrogant jerk!” she blurted out.’ ‘Adonis, what is that?’ Max interrupts. ‘An Adonis is a beautiful or handsome young man you have to be a bit on your guard against,’ I explain. 41
‘How it happened is unclear – maybe one of the roof tiles was loose or maybe she looked up too long and was blinded by the sun – but in any event, she lost her balance. She fell, awkwardly flapping her wings in the air. Eyes wide open in mortal fear, she plunged earthward at a dizzying pace. The world that had looked so small now grew ever larger at breakneck speed; she could see the joints of the village square fast approaching. Then, out of nowhere – believe it or not – a golden streak swooped right under her. She was lifted up like a feather and saved by her Adonis,’ I say to end the story. Max looks at me quizzically. ‘The story’s not over, is it?’ he asks, confused. ‘Why did he save her?’ ‘By calling him arrogant, she piqued his interest, as if arousing him from a deep sleep. I think he wanted to get to know her better.’ Just ask Miss Rita about what that can lead to, I think to myself. ‘Where did they go?’ he wonders. ‘Where exactly did you find that dinosaur skull?’ I ask. ‘I would look there.’ His mother approaches with the little tyke. As soon as she sees Max, she says, ‘Where were you? I’ve been waiting for you this whole time.’ ‘Come on, mummy, we’re going home,’ he says impatiently, grabbing his little brother by the hand.
Molenbeek Drawings. A Fairytale for Bambino Day-Care Centre Bart Lodewijks, 2021 Text and drawings: Bart Lodewijks Photographs: Jan Kempenaers Copy editing: Danielle van Zuijlen Translation: Nina Woodson Graphic design: Roger Willems Supported by: VZW Bambino The Flemish Community Commission The Flemish Infrastructure Fund for Personal Affairs A special thank you to: Rita van Wijnendeale Mia Janssens Marjoleine Verlinden The architects Peter Casier and Bert Gellynck, whose children attended Bambino Sister Leontine of the Congregation of the Ursuline Sisters of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-Waver, who established Bambino at this location in 1967 Agnes Seghers, Nancy Goedefroy, Lena Callebaut, Nisrine Malki, Ghizlane Goudane, Gulen Sarier, Damla Kiztok, Fatima El Mestari, Elina Zitouni, Sarlak, Sumeyra, Greta Van den Brempt, Feith Koraki, Shams Satar, Max en Elliot.