In Bercy Park, Paris, there is a group of 21 metal sculptures. These human figures each have a nationality, and are formed out of the manhole covers sourced from their country. They even have their own names (and personalities!).
French sculptor Rachid Khimoune’s masterpieces are not easy to find, and you need to be searching for them. They’re up on a grassy terrace, near the pedestrian bridge Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir. Let’s meet them, and find out where they’re from!
Working with manhole covers
I had some questions.
How hot must that oven have been to melt and rework the cast iron of a manhole cover!?
Rachid Khimoune needed to heat his sculptures to 1150°C to 1200°C (2100°F to 2190°F). Wow!
Secondly, how much does a manhole cover weigh?
An average manhole cover can weight upwards of 113kg (249lb). Something wasn’t adding up – using real manhole covers would not have been possible to melt and transport.
The solution? An elastomer polymer was used to take prints of the manhole covers, a soft and moldable substance which could dry and create a replica of the street. Now that makes sense!
They were created in 2001. Each character comes to life with the very metal of the city streets; the textures, colours and insignia of manhole covers is integrated into each personality.
I packed a raincoat and a camera, and went to find them one cold Parisian winter’s day.
Marie Carmen l’Espangol
This lady in the flowing dress of grates is Marie Carmen l’Espangol, the Spanish lady. A closer inspection at the red-tinted breastplate shows that she is from Valencia. The manhole covers were traced on paper, and reconstructed by hand.
The coat of arms is obvious, with the bat, the heraldic symbol of the city and also representative of the crown of Aragon, on top. Below are two L’s, which represent the word lleialtat, a Catalan word which means loyalty. The loyalty motto harkens back to The War of Two Peters, when the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were at war.
A throwback to the ancient days of Egypt, this is Isis l’Egyptienne.
There are hieroglyphs of the Eyes of Horus here for the eyes, and the print of tyre treads across the head. The plain, knobbly manhole covers from Cairo cover the shoulders, but my favourite part by far is the detailed bronze sarcophagus, which even has a tarnished, oxidised look. Wonderful!
Antonio le Brésilien
Woah, check out the crazy hair! And the party shirt made of what appear to be fire hydrant water outlets! And a tambourine etched with Christ the Redeemer! It’s Antonio le Brésilien!
Fun fact: Although built by Brazilian engineers, Christ the Redeemer was designed by a fellow French Sculptor, Paul Landowski!
Antonio doesn’t seem to have any manhole covers incorporated into his design. But upon closer inspection, the yellow spots have the words Eau embossed on them, so they still count as capturing the streets of Brazil.
Rania was constructed purposefully to hide the face. I think the way that the patterned ‘cloth’ is all bunched up where her hands are looks incredible. Great craftsmanship with Rania l’Arabe (Rania the Arab).
Ali le Tunisien
Hiding a pair of manhole covers underneath his bronze vest is Ali le Tunisien (Ali the Tunisian). The vest is free of ornamentation, so the little details pop out nicely. There are little keyholes for eyes. It’s the little bits of colour on these statues is what gives them a bit of flair, like Ali’s red fez, tilted to the side, and a square face that looks like a street access flap.
Felipe le Mexicain
Felipe le Mexicain (Felipe the Mexican), an unfortunate victim of unwanted graffiti here.
The manhole covers of Mexico City are rather plain and uninspired, so incorporating the checkered look into the poncho, and tyre treads into the sombrero are cool touches on a very colourful Enfant du Monde.
He’s one of my favourites, a smiley guy with a really cool outfit.
Enzo l’Italien (Enzo the Italian) has a happy white mask, that envokes the opera, or the theatre.
He seems to hail from Venice at first glance. But if you look a little closer, one of the best things about Enzo is his multi-textured vest, which actually has designs from cities all around Italy. It seems as though the artist Khimoune went on a travelling spree, tracing the covers for all kinds of ground coverings (cunningly stitched together to great effect).
Jeanne le Poupée Russe
This cobblestone-covered egg thing is actually Jeanne le Poupée Russe (Jeanne the Russian doll). The cobblestone design looks like it’s lifted right from the streets of Paris.
The designs across the shoulders looks like an anti-slip feature. Jeanne has big red lips and long eyelashes, and a big red communist-era manhole cover on her stomach. In fact, the artist traced this cover right in front of a KGB headquarters, and he had to explain his work to an inquisitive guard.
Jim le New-Yorkais
Do New Yorkers commonly dress up as native Americans? Jim le New-Yorkais does! He seems to be a really interesting guy, with a perplexed expression, eyes made of giant bronze nuts, a smile that reads ‘Broadway’, and an homage to his country’s native inhabitants adorning his head in storm drain grate form. Very cool!
The artist was actually dobbed in to the police as he traced the design of his manhole cover. They arrived, and interrogated him with questions on the side of the street, suspicious of his work.
Mohamed le Marocain
This mysterious grim reaper is actually Mohamed le Marocain (Mohamed the Moroccan), wrapped in a thick cloak of Marrakesh utility covers (It looks really warm actually!).
I imagine the artist in his workshop, trying to manipulate a molten slab of metal like this into a coat. What an effort that must have been.
Jean-Baptiste le Manégasque
This happy fellow with starry eyes is Jean-Baptiste le Manégasque. Manégasque is a dialect of the Ligurian language, spoken (as Jean-Baptiste’s hat suggests) in Monaco.
Not just the cast iron of the streets is represented here; the pavers of Monaco are paid homage to on Jean-Baptiste’s jacket. Take a very close look at his face, and you’ll see that he has a moustache of arrows.
Naomi l’Africaine (Naomi the African), presumably a representative for the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. In the style of representing the roads of the country, Naomi’s dress aptly depicts the unpaved dirt and clay roads I remember well from a 4×4 African road trip I did a few years ago!
Naomi has a replica made, which was installed in 2007 along Avenue du General de Galle in Ouagadougou, Burkino Faso.
Impeccably dressed, and sporting a large bronze turban, meet Mahatma l’Indien!
In fact, when the artist was scouting for manhole covers in New Delhi, he struggled to find any that didn’t have the word ‘London’ printed on them. It’s an interesting throwback to days of colonial rule, where the British presumably controlled the manhole covers of India.
Instead, Khimoune sourced wooden printing blocks, used as molds to print Indian fabrics, which gives Mahatma a very detailed design.
This fashionable figure with the manhole cover necklace, gas utility belt buckle and astonished, fish-like expression is Eve l’Allemande (Eve the German).
There are small designs on here if you inspect it in detail, the compass, hammer and star, all dating back to the former German Democratic Republic.
Jean le Suisse
This expressionless man is Jean le Suisse (Jean the Swiss), dressed as a colourful soldier. His breastplate, interestingly enough, says ‘Neuchatel’, the name of a Swiss city where Khimoune has exhibited another ‘Enfants du Monde’.
Mu Nan le Chinoise
That wry smile belongs to Mu Nan le Chinoise. While taking then prints of sewerage covers on the streets of Guanzhou, a cheeky student approached with a pair of fish, showing them off.
He joked – You can do what is forbidden in public, you can legally poach!
Akavak le Canadien
Proud of a their country’s leaf as only a Canadian could be, this patriotic character is Akavak le Canadien. The maple leaf is on full display on the stomach, as well as across the winter hat. The name Akavak seems to be an homage to Inuit peoples of Canada.
Kahina la Kabyle
Kahina hails from Algeria, and is actually named after the artist’s daughter. She also inspired the creation of Les Enfants Du Monde in the first place, as she ran into the school yard to join a multi-cultural group of friends.
Originally, Kahina had a smooth, doll-like face, which was graffitied somewhat by local Parisians. There are also interesting motifs in Kahina’s hair.
The big, round, melty face of Dick l’Anglais clearly came from a London street, and it’s written all over his smile too! I like the fusion of smooth tarmac road and historic cobblestones on Dick’s winter coat.
Taking the mold in London, Khimoune was approached yet again by a policeman, asking what he was doing. With a big blob of elastomer on the street, waiting to dry, he was asked about what he was up to.
After explaining about his project, the policeman insisted he stay next to his cast until it set, to prevent accidents. It took all night, but during that time, curious and friendly locals brought him food and cups of tea!
Ayako la Japonaise
This solid bronze big-haired Geisha is Ayako la Japonaise. The effect of the manhole cover stamps works well to create a traditional outfit!
Japan’s manhole covers are something of a wonder in of themselves. Every city commission stunning, enamel-coloured designs that depict the personality of the city, whether it feature animals, nature, produce or local industry. Featured here is a sakura, commonly found on the streets of Tokyo.
Le Titi Parisien
Last but not least is the Frenchman, Le Titi Parisien. The exact definition of a Titi Parisien seem difficult to define, but seems to be a resourceful, cheeky kid from Paris’ streets. The beaming smile says it all!
The beautiful plaque comes from just in front of the Opera Garnier. The lyre design was even designed by the Opera’s architect himself, as an implacable mark of his work (just in case the Opera would one day be destroyed!).
How to find Les Enfants du Monde
It can be confusing to find Les Enfants du Monde; it is not anywhere near any major tourist sights.
The most straightforward way is to cross the Seine from the Bibliothéque Nationale across the wavy pedestrian bridge Passarelle Simone-de-Beauvoir, accessible from Metro Quai de la Gare.
Alternatively, Metro stations Bercy and Cour Saint-Émilion are not far away too.