Enter the Basilica of Saint-Denis, located in the Paris suburb of the same name. The cathedral was constructed to honor the first Bishop of Paris, who died a martyr’s death in 250 AD. It serves as a final resting place for much of French royalty. Walk past the rose windows and cross-ribbed vaults that bathe the cathedral in weak afternoon light. Step down the stone stairs into the basilica crypt, past the recumbent royalty buried in the basilica’s vast tombs, to find contemporary photographs of the basilica’s new “queens of France.”
On prints affixed to plexiglass shaped to match the curved cathedral windows, six color photographs show women draped in ivory sheets. These women lay in repose; their hands open in their laps, their stares fixed heavenward. Many of the women are young, some bedecked in jewels and gleaming red nail polish, some unadorned, the fabric folds echoing the draped shape of a hijab.
These modern Madonnas are the work of the artist Arilés de Tizi. His art exhibition, called Queens of France, is part of his cycle of exhibitions on “the mothers of exile,” meant to link the two emblematic locations within the neighborhood of Saint-Denis: the basilica, and the open-air market hall of Saint-Denis, located just a few minutes away from the church.
The church is a refuge from the frenzy of the market, a meeting space of languages and predominantly North African immigrant communities of the neighborhood. De Tizi attempts to link the two spaces through portraiture. The six women in his exhibition are women from the neighborhood of Saint-Denis. Though photographed to resemble the Virgin Mary, the new queens in de Tizi’s portraits are immigrants and exiles, some here in France illegally.
Like much of his work, this exhibit aims to link the sacred and the profane, uniting these two spaces of Saint-Denis by representing figures from the market hall in lavish religious iconography. The central figure, “Ama,” is the grandmother of de Tizi. Her portrait is positioned at the center of the six, the only woman who wears an actual dress instead of an elaborately folded white shroud.
On a wall behind the portraits, a video plays on loop. The video features the women of the exhibition as they share their stories of war, religion, and the memories of the countries they had to leave.
“I came to France because I had to work,” says one of the women whose likeness is rendered in the installation. “I was only twenty years old. It feels like they stole my youth.”
“I do everything I can to be a good citizen,” says another. “You can’t turn your back on this country that gave us a chance.”
For those who now find their likenesses resting in the basilica, many did not feel as if they could have entered the basilica and crossed this cultural threshold. The church is open to all who can pay, but French culture can feel inaccessible to those who do not share its history.
“I would never have thought I would be visiting Saint-Denis,” one of the women says. “I’ve always had an image of a mosque, a basilica as a closed space. The Basilica is a place of peace; I feel my spirit has a certain rest.”