PARIS — For his paintings using human liposuction fat, the process described by the artist Benoît Maurin-Ducolibri (he uses the name Ben Colibri for his art), sounds like something from a sci-fi film about secret experiments in genetics.
As such, when asked where he acquires his supplies, Colibri replies, “This is a secret. I can’t give away my contacts for obvious reasons, as I could be accused of doing organ business.”
The first step in Colibri’s work is indeed getting hold of this forbidden substance. Then, when he paints with it, he cuts slices that remind him of tucking into foie gras. These nibbles he then melts and mixes with his paint.
“Don’t forget it’s forbidden,” he says.
“First, it arrives as hot liquid. Then you have to preserve it by freezing it, and it becomes even more bizarre. [To paint)] I cut some frozen slices that I then melt it into a liquid which becomes a medium like linseed oil, to which I add pigment and sealant. I can then paint.”
Colibri does other things in the name of art, with his “human grease” as well. “I also pour the liquid into moulds such as breast chicken, and other meat. I seal it in airtight bags, to look like what you see on a supermarket shelf,” he says.
Indeed, mixed in with his more traditional voluptuous nudes and images of skulls carrying slogans like, “Sorry, I'm alive,” are these odd-looking chicken breasts art works not to mention sculptures of babies made using liposuction fat, hanging in bags. Some are featured in artworks that show the head of a baby floating inside a translucent breast with golden nipples.
Making it is even more macabre.
“Human fat stinks,” he says. “When I melt it, it smells of death. It’s horrible. It makes me think of the gas chambers. It has a truly horrible smell, like nothing you have smelt before, for us who have never lived this tragedy. I didn’t do it to shock. I just needed to do it. It’s done.”
Still, this dirty work has gone down a treat with everyone from celebrities to politicians. Colibri’s work has been collected, he says, by Nicolas Sarkozy, Prada, Radiohead, Hugh Hefner, Ivana Trump, and Marisa Berenson, to name but a few.
Born in Marseille, and inspired by his grandfather, a Fauvist painter of some acclaim, Colibri now lives between a boat in the harbor of this happening seaside town and a chateau in Nîmes.
He is much celebrated in the south of France. His work has been the subject of major exhibitions in Marseille and is currently on show at a number of French locations, including the picturesque Provençal village Baux de Provence (until July 19).
Although Colibri works in other mediums, he first turned to using human fat in 2005, he says. The choice is both social commentary on developments that he both deplores and embraces.
“I started using human fat following a crazy nightmare I have had,” he says. “I wanted to show the paradox we live in on this planet. We are two hours away by plane from, and often on our doorstep we see, famine and malnutrition. Yet in our consumer society we have beautiful women who want to look thin, after feeding themselves with foie gras and champagne.”
Some of this he has experienced in close-up.
“It may come as a surprise to some people that models actually have liposuction,” he says. “We don’t know this and assume them to be perfect, naturally. My girlfriends, who were models, were afraid of losing their jobs on the catwalks.
“The pressure and dictates of the media and the current cult of the body push everyone to try to be more beautiful, wealthier, more, always more, always be at the top.
“Paradoxically, I love beautiful women, models, fashion, creativity and more fashion. I am addicted to all of this. I need it in order to create and advance in my artistic search. But it doesn’t stop me from being conscious of its impact and wanting to help provide equilibrium for those who need it in this crazy world.”
To date, Colibri has done 15 paintings and 10 sculptures using liposuction fat, representing everything from supermarket food to the babies. Some of the process of painting with human fat has been shared with French audiences in the TV show Paris Dernière.
He considers his most outlandish piece to be a work entitled “I Had a Dream.”
It consists of six large panels showing larger than life personalities from politicos to Madonna, depicted in human fat, tar, and feathers.
The work caught the eye of Nicolas Cage but, apparently, he did not have enough room for it.
A photograph shows the artist posing like a shaggy-haired revolutionary in front of this piece. Other pictures make him look slick and jet set.
He embraces both universes. “I work as an artistic reporter, covering the world and diverse societies which surround us and live inevitably in our relationship with each other,” he says.
“My work evolves with world events and what feelings I have towards it. This is to try to be the most objective and also a denouncer. I am like a great reporter. I go to the front line of the crazy and sickly wars. Whether they are to do with economics or religious reasons, they remain human and therefore absurd and inevitable.”
Marseille has recently come back into vogue but it has always been part of his inspiration.
“It is the melting pot of the Mediterranean and a true French city,” he says. “I learned to paint on my grandfather’s lap. His name was Edmond Duplan Ducolibri. He was an artist in the style of Chagall and Rouault who won a prize by the town of New York in 1968.
“He used to paint every day and was part of the great Fauvist artists of Marseille. His work includes 6,000 pieces, which most parts remain with my mother and us children.”
As well as a social commentator, sometimes Ducolibri feels and looks whilst at work like a surgeon.
“I am an artist, a painter, a sculptor of emotions, of awareness and realization. Strangely, the surgeon is also part of my work. He sculpts paradoxically, in his own way.”
He adds: “I don’t seek to criticize the fashion world of Western society, but sometime I just want to be able to stop the ‘fashion show’ and make us reflect upon who we are, with a modern and simple commentary. It’s like stopping the image of a film d'horreur, which makes us laugh while watching, but wishing it will never happen to us.”