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New York graffiti artists showcased in French chateau

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Marseille (AFP)

When New York graffiti artists spray painted their colourful and subversive work on subways in the 1980s, it was an illegal activity done only in the dead of night.

Three decades later, their work is on show in a lavish sixteenth century manor that belonged to a French aristocratic family in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille.

The Chateau de Forbin is a grand mansion perched in a vast park filled with plane and olive trees on the eastern outskirts of the city.

Now works by American street art legends Dondi White and Futura are on display in panelled cream-coloured rooms where chandeliers hang from the ceiling -- an intentional contrast.

"People think the meeting of a French aristocratic family and American graffiti is impossible. And yet, this place allows them to meet," said co-curator of the new permanent exhibition Caroline Pozzo di Borgo, a renowned collector of street art worldwide.

"We want a place of sharing," said di Borgo, away from abandoned factories or urban galleries.

"Marseille has always welcomed artists and had links with the United States," di Borgo said.

This was very much the case in World War II when American journalist Varian Fry who arrived in Marseille in 1940 and saved around 2,000 people from the Nazis, including the painters Marc Chagall and Max Ernst.

- 'Masters of graffiti' -

The exhibition features drawings, paintings and photographs, all on display in the mansion's many living rooms and in the stairwell and library.

"We're presenting the post-graffiti movement and the East Village scene in New York, focusing on the 80s," said di Borgo, who studied history and was first fascinated by Egyptian, Greek and Roman inscriptions –- antique forms of street art –- before turning to its modern manifestations.

"They're the masters of graffiti and the majority of the work that you will see here have been created by aerosol, without being pre-drawn," she added.

Caroline Pozzo di Borgo and her husband own the majority of the works on display. But the permanent exhibition will also showcase works owned by other collectors whose identities have not been revealed.

Dondi White, known as "Style Master General" was among the first street artists to achieve success beyond the underground world.

Photographs by Martha Cooper and Henry Chaflant capture his and others ephemeral works that have since disappeared from New York's streets and subways, but now hang in frames.

In a corner, a leather jacket signed by street artist and LGBT-rights activist Keith Haring and other famous graffiti maestros of the time sits proudly.

In total 130 works by the pioneers line the opulent manor, including pieces by one of the movement's only women Lady Pink, designs by Rammellzee who has a room dedicated to him, and the abstract and figurative creations by Lee Quinones.

Artists Rick Prol and Chris Daze Ellis, who were first celebrated in New York's East Village in the early 1980s, will be in residency for a month each from July or August depending on the coronavirus situation.

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