This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
Arnaud Adami’s working life began in a warehouse in 2015 when he was 19. The painter spent a year moving boxes around before realising he couldn’t see himself doing it for the rest of his life. He took a risk and quit his job with nothing lined up.
He knew he enjoyed drawing and hoped that something might come out of it. “I tried to get into a preparatory course for an art school,” he said, “even though the only material I had to show was three drawings in an old notebook.”
Adami’s plan paid off: He got into École Nationale Supérieure d'Art de Bourges, an art school in central France. During his early days as a student, Adami dabbled in a bit of everything: installation pieces, ceramics, sculpture.
It wasn’t until his second year in Bourges that Adami began working with paint – but then he realised he needed subjects. He began painting portraits of his colleagues at the factory where he was now working part-time.
A few years passed, and Adami decided to continue his studies at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris. “When I arrived in the city I spotted a new kind of gig economy worker: the delivery riders,” he said. “I told myself that I was going to paint them into art history."
Adami began ordering food using delivery apps. When the drivers arrived, he’d ask if he could take their photo so that he had a point of reference for a potential portrait. Initially, he was met with suspicion by the majority of workers he spoke with.
“They often left in fear,” Adami said. “Some of them were undocumented migrants and didn’t want issues, which is totally understandable.” But even the riders who had their papers in order often refused.
Undeterred, he began with painting fictitious models and gradually ended up making friends with people who actually worked as delivery drivers for a living. They became the subjects of an ongoing artistic investigation into a 21st century topic: the people who prop up the gig economy.
Despite the inherently political nature of his paintings, Adami refuses to address the workers’ specific labour conditions in too much detail. “I’m not using my words in the place of someone else’s,” he said. “That’s not my role. I just paint pictures. I add images to a world that is already full of them.”
Then there’s the question of where these portraits should go on show. Should they be displayed in ticketed galleries or would they be better off in public spaces, where they could provoke a meaningful debate about the conditions of the workers they depict? Adami takes a more modest approach. "Hopefully it can just change some people’s outlook a little," he said. “I think of it as activism, but an activism with a little poetry added to it.”
Check out more of Arnaud Adami’s paintings below.