Discovering the hidden art of Paris – Les Enfants du Monde

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.

Let’s go!

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.

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Detail of Marie Carmen l’Espangol, from Valencia

Isis l’Egyptienne

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!

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
A throwback to ancient Egypt, it’s Isis l’Egyptienne
Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Detail of Isis l’Egyptienne, using hieroglyphics for eyes

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.

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
The joyful, colourful Antonio le Brésilien
Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Christ the Redeemer, as part of Antonio le Brésilien

Rania l’Arabe

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).

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Wrapped up tightly, it’s Rania l’Arabe

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.

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Ali le Tunisien, complete with painted red fez
Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Ali le Tunisien showing his manhole covers

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.

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Felipe le Mexicain, with a few unfortunate graffiti scribbles

Enzo l’Italien

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).

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
A theatre lover – Enzo l’Italien
Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Enzo l’Italien gives away where he’s from – ‘Comune di Venezia’

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.

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Jeanne le Poupée Russe, the Russian doll
Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Detail of the chest of Jeanne le Poupée Russe

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.

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Jim le New-Yorkais pulls a funny face for the camera
Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Details of Jim le New-Yorkais’ Broadway chin

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.

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
The mysterious hooded Mohamed le Marocain
Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Inside Mohamed le Marocain’s hoody

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.

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Jean-Baptiste le Manégasque, who can’t stop smiling!
Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
The steampunk face of Monaco’s Jean-Baptiste le Manégasque

Naomi l’Africaine

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.

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Naomi l’Africaine standing tall

Mahatma l’Indien

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.

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
The wonderful details of Mahatma l’Indien

Eve l’Allemande

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.

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
The cone-headed Eve l’Allemande

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’.

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Jean le Suisse, with his Neuchatel chestplate

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!

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Mu Nan le Chinoise

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.

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Akavak le Canadien (obviously!)

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.

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Kahina la Kabyle, sporting a bit of graffiti

Dick l’Anglais

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!

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
The happy chap – Dick l’Anglais
Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Dick the Englishman’s interesting eyes

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.

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Ayako la Japonaise, a very formal looking metallic geisha
Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Closeup of Ayako le Japonaise’s Tokyo-style manhole cover

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!).

Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
Le Titi Parisian, with an ornate chestplate
Children of the world sculptures by Rachid Khimoune in Bercy Park Paris
The cheeky face of Le Titi Parisien

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.


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