The man who made people happy

My friend Jean Francois Zurawik was the man who made people happy. It was his obsession, his reason for living. He was the visionary who made the Fete des Lumieres in Lyon the most visited mass event in Europe. With the map of Lyon on his table, he was designing, imagining, the emotions that the most varied artists would arouse in the three million visitors that arrive every year around December 8, a dark and winter day when the people of Lyon used to place a small candle in their window to remind them that love is capable of breaking the darkest darkness.

In the narrow streets of District 1, he placed small and intimate works, small interior amusements, that surprised the unsuspecting walker: a piano that automatically repeated its notes under some naked trees, some totems that only revealed their ideograms when illuminated by the camera’s flash. In the enormous square of Bellecour there was a break for the people who had walked for hours without stopping: a garden with thousands of tropical flowers, some winged fish, like enormous whales, that rose in the middle of the fog.

Jean Francois worked with the most innovative artists in France and the world, every year hundreds of proposals for light installations in the public space of Lyon arrived. He was highly criticized because he didn’t just choose conceptual artists or the most avant-garde, but also incorporated playful installations for the delight of children, accepted simple and fun proposals that were closer to technology than to art, and gave a lot of space to artists who were still learning. He actually picked up the old tradition of the French medieval minstrels, who would show up in the village squares with their songs, their fire, their stories, and who would give people back a joie de vivre that was based on a sense of belonging to their community.  The popular festival in France, as in our Andean world, is much more than a party. It is the reason to appropriate the city, to rediscover it, it is a source of meaning and identity.

Jean Francois (white shirt) on his last night as Director of the Fete des Lumieres

When night falls, we human beings feel vulnerable and unprotected, that is why we light up our streets, we become obsessed with covering every last corner with a flat and hurtful light. We become obsessed with turning the night into day, with making the day forget the boundaries with the night.  

But the Fete des Lumieres is not the festival of lights, it is the festival of darkness. We give back to the city its darkness, its mystery, we turn off or cover the public lighting, and we mark that darkness with small invitations to magic.

Some think that it is a matter of placing some mappings full of effects in some historical buildings. Not at all, the Fete des Lumieres that Jean Francois built over decades was an exercise in subtlety, a tour of the twists and turns, of the secret spaces that every city holds, an invitation to recognize the power of what we cannot see. I remember, for example, the installation we achieved at the Compañía de Quito, the most important baroque church in the Americas, with the artist Daniel Knipper. The public entered the most absolute darkness. A bluish light would appear, a faint moonlight in the domes, and in ten minutes the wonder would slowly reveal itself: a column would be lit, a side altar would be lit, the organ, the presbytery, the central vault, the main altar, scene by scene, always preserving the darkness. Jean Francois proposed that, to sprinkle the night – our vulnerability during the night – with small candles that break the darkness.

We imagined together the Quito Festival of Light. Here he left his heart, his affections, he drew bridges between our two cities. Artists came and went. He told me recently that nowhere had he been so happy. He was my teacher and my dearest friend. Our party was like that of Lyon, a diversion, a playful exercise, an invitation to look at the city with new eyes, to turn off the lights, all the lights, and look inside.

I remember his emotion when we visited the Parc de la Tete d’Or. One of the largest parks in Lyon had been transformed with all sorts of beings of the night. The minstrels walked on their big stilts and their regal dresses, on the lake you could see some ghosts dancing in a huge column of water, the meadows were full of planets and worlds that rotated illuminated slightly by a dying light. On the tops of the trees some beings dressed with stars appeared and disappeared. The breeze slightly shook the trees and the December fog reminded us that underneath the magic that Jean Francois imagined, there are still other unimaginable layers of magic and mystery.

It was a crazy idea: releasing tens of thousands of luminioles, paper boats with candles, into the Saona River… Were they all going to be shipwrecked? It was impossible to prove the idea, too expensive. When I saw this December 2019 the river illuminated by thousands of small candles I understood that Jean Francois had achieved something that no one had done before, that this was his farewell as director of the Fete des Lumieres. The simple and powerful message: when we unite, when each of our little lights joins the others, there is no darkness that can defeat us.

Thank you Jean Francois, my sweet friend, may all the smiles you have sown light your way.