Skip to main content
Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles

A sensitive fabric

Maison Gertrude, an art center in a nursing home

Laetitia Paillé

Turning a place of care into a place of culture, a place open to all. It is in the heart of Brussels, in a nursing home in the Marolles, that the Théâtre National, together with the Public Centre for Social Welfare and the City of Brussels, set about creating an art centre. To bring artists, audiences, teams, etc. into the home, so that they can immerse themselves in the lives of residents and staff and take part in this wonderful project. Because entering the nursing home means lifting a corner of the veil on the art centre. Stepping into Résidence Sainte-Gertrude means opening the doors of Maison Gertrude.

As neurobiologist Henri Laborit has taught us, when faced with danger, humans usually choose one of three courses of action: flight, paralysis or fight. There is at least one more: when you are scared, you can push open doors. That is what we need to do at Maison Gertrude, a nursing home in the heart of the Marolles – a gesture that the art centre designed by Mohamed El Khatib and supported by the Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles can help us make. If we hesitate to push open the doors of Maison Gertrude, it is out of embarrassment and fear, of course. Fear of the gaping hole dug within us by what the poor and the old are missing – the inhabitants of Maison Gertrude, twice relegated from the beautiful world around them: bent backs, missing teeth, scratches, life’s setbacks and counter-setbacks. But that’s before you push the door.

You just have to sit in on the residents’ council, where residents and professionals meet every three months to talk about day-to-day issues: food, activities, the state of the sanitary facilities, problems with keys, doors to be left opened or closed, diets and health. And then, suddenly, life overflows, life is everywhere: the residents’ council is the beating heart of the world of the living, a political space where the boundary between care and control, between the collective and intimacy, between disorder and organization, is tested at every moment. A space where residents can disagree, where they wonder what has happened to the laundry that is taking so long to come back, where they can ask for a bit more sauce on the pasta and more Camembert cheese, while the representative of the Brussels kitchens takes notes scrupulously, bent over his sheet, listening. A place where people suggest things, where they talk and listen, where they find ways of living together, through small adjustments, slight displacements, through the meticulous attention of the workers. A place where residents laugh, too – who would have thought. Where they talk to each other and joke. The exact opposite of an old people’s home.

An art centre could make that possible precisely: to produce forms based on what vibrates and expresses itself here, what we imagine from the outside to be restrained, withdrawn, extinguished, when all it takes is a glance at the residents’ council, an exchange with the inhabitants – professionals and residents – to understand that it is quite the opposite that is unfolding here.

Laetitia Paillé
Le Rideau de saison, Maak & Transmettre · photos : Lucile Dizier, 2024