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Wooden figures bursting with personality on show in Brussels

11:20 11/01/2021
The outstanding results of a creative public initiative that raised more than €20,000 for a Brussels homeless organisation are now on show at Halles Saint-Géry

Maybe you saw them pop up on social media: Those quintessential little wooden mannequin’s creatively transformed – sometimes with props – into sculptures bursting with personality.

One is, for instance, holding a Belgian endive. Another is hiding under – or perhaps being run over by – a shopping cart. A green version is becoming one with a moss-covered log, another is finding its place in a lovingly sketched universe.

They were made by artists and other members of the public in support of Infirmiers de Rue, an organisation providing medical care to the homeless. And now you can see them all together at the free exhibition 1,000 Petits Bonshommes in Halles Saint-Géry.

Mannequin by Ange Bruneel

It all started on 18 March, the day that Cédric Gérard was going to open his brand new bar-eatery Bobbi Bao in the centre of Brussels. Pretty bad timing, right?

Gérard – also the owner of the Café des Halles and the Chez Bobbi organic market and taproom in Haut-Ittre – decided to take the 1,000 mannequins that were to decorate his new business and hand them out to people to personalise. Once completed, they would be sent back and auctioned off, with the proceeds benefitting Infirmiers de Rue.

“The Bobbi Bao staff were disappointed that they couldn’t open the restaurant in March,” says Tine Dupré, co-director of Halles Saint-Géry. “But, situated next to the Bourse, they also saw the impact of the lockdown on some of the most vulnerable people in our society – people who live in the street. So they thought, OK, this sucks for us, but we’re definitely not the worst off. Then they began thinking about how they could help people who were far worse off than them.”

Mannequin by Guillermo Guiz

The owner of successful eateries, Gérard is no stranger to décor – nor to marketing. So he put the two together for the 1,000 Petits Bonshommes.

“He immediately saw the possibility of an initiative that was linked to both art and raising money in the name of solidarity,” explains Dupré. “The thought was that this will inject a little energy into the sector and bring people together, bring a creative air into society again. And if we could raise money while doing that, all the better.”

In the end, 1,000 Petits Bonshommes was a rousing success, with some 650 little figures being taken in and given personalities of their own. About 300 have since sold at prices ranging from €20 to €600, delivering a total sum of €23,000 to Infirmiers de Rue.

Mannequin by Cat Bartolomé

Many more will be sold in a public auction next month, when Halles Saint-Géry hopes to offer in-person workshops to assist people of all ages in personalising more of the mannequins. Every new one will become part of the exhibition, which runs until 27 February.

The 1,000 Petits Bonshommes programme also includes debates on the homeless situation in Brussels and the role of artists in social movements. Halles hopes to be able to offer these debates in person, but will stage them online if necessary. Should you like to bid on a mannequin, keep track of the initiative’s Facebook page.

1000 petits bonhommes

As for Bobbi Bao, it finally was able to open on Rue Henri Maus in June, and to favourable reviews for its Asian-inspired burgers and generously portioned cocktails. It is also a cultural space, hosting performances and exhibitions.

Of course Bobbi Bao had to close again in October and is waiting, along with every other bar and restaurant in Belgium, for the go-ahead to open its doors. While it may not be decorated by little mannequins, as originally planned, it more than makes up for it with pandas and plants.

1,000 Petits Bonshommes, Until 27 February, Place Saint-Géry

Written by Lisa Bradshaw