The Leuven Hundreds

Portraits of a city's people, today

We’ve joined forces with Leuven to highlight 100 local people, places and projects that contribute towards making the city what it is today. From artists and architects to producers and professors, these are the driving forces powering Leuven forward one ingenious initiative at a time.

Sammy Ben Yakoub

Sammy Ben Yakoub

Contemporary artist, curator and educator, Cas-co (1980)

Can you describe what you do?

I live in Leuven’s Vaartkom neighbourhood, a former industrial site – best known for its former Stella Artois brewery – which is now transforming into a new hub. Situated around the Dyle river and the Leuven-Dyle Canal, with lots of water and space, it’s trendy, fluid, mobile and growing. An all-round great place to live in. I spend a lot of time in Brussels as well as in other cities out of the country, so to live so close to the train station as well as to Brussels Airport is truly indispensable. On top of that, I get to live, work and enjoy the somewhat sheltered environment of a smaller city – the perfect habitat in which I can find the right balance in life. At the moment, I’m working on several different fronts. I work as curator and coach for the N+1 residency program at Cas-co, a non-profit art organisation providing studios, workspaces and project spaces for artists. I also teach art at the Heilige-Drievuldigheidscollege, a high school in Leuven. Finally, I have my own practice as an artist, based here in Leuven; and am involved in various art education organisations, like Artforum.

How do you perceive Leuven?

It’s difficult to explain, but for me – and this of course is a subjective perception – it feels like Leuven is always “indoors” somehow, even if you walk through its parks, streets, or market-places. It feels like it’s a “dome”, like it’s all connected as an “indoor” space next to the airport and Brussels. So you can easily get out, or go back for shelter, if needed. There’s also this massive student community that provides a very specific, young and international texture to the city, whilst never dominating its social makeup – you still have other strong communities which co-exist. For the last five years, I’ve felt a growing relationship between the artistic scene of Brussels and Leuven, driven in part by M-Museum and LUCA’s close-knit ties with the city. And there’s also an influx of dancers finding their way from Brussels to Leuven, and vice-versa, because of the very strong position STUK now holds within the country’s dance scene. So there’s a sense of movement. What I am hoping for in the future is that the artistic community of Leuven will continue to evolve and grow, and become rooted in the city itself without losing its channels and relationships with other cities.

Leuven doesn’t neglect its own provinciality, which I now understand to be a good thing. But at the same time, it transcends this factor – and this is something new.

What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?

Leuven doesn’t neglect its own provinciality, which I now understand to be a good thing. But at the same time, it transcends this factor – and this is something new. It’s already been going on for some time now, but I can feel the start of something new, a new generation coming into place, who will push this phenomenon to the next level. Leuven is somewhat peaceful and sheltered – a place for retreat and contemplation – whilst simultaneously being very alive and dynamic, with a lot going on. Not only on an artistic level (think of M-Museum, STUK, Cas-co, or OPEK) but also academically, with the strongly international University of course. It’s a city that embodies a lot of knowledge – like the sciences, philosophy and the arts – and that’s a huge asset to the city.

How has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?

In Leuven I can find solitude. There’s nothing like spending some time in the Keizersberg Abbey Park, for instance. I need that time-out: it’s personally enriching, and Leuven enables this. Professionally, as an arts educator and mediator, I’ve enjoyed the support and trust of M-Museum right from its early days in 2009, and I am grateful to still have it today.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

I would like to see more roughness, more space for bottom-up initiatives, more real trust in the youth and its artists, without asking for an immediately tangible quantitative return on investment. The rise of an artistic community rooted in Leuven, the development of an educational landscape with space for basic art education for younger generations, less sectoral thinking, more diagonal movements and, last but not least – the classic demand, but still very much relevant – more green spaces. And I’m not talking about the empty promises of greenwashing private property developers or political recuperation, but rather about trees, plants, bees and the space to walk, wander and play.

Leuven is somewhat peaceful and sheltered – a place for retreat and contemplation – whilst simultaneously being very alive and dynamic, with a lot going on.

If you had to take an out-of-towner to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?

I’d start with a visit to the Husserl Archive: world-famous and of extreme importance, although not a lot of locals know about it. Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) was a highly significant philosopher who established the school of phenomenology, having also influenced many other legendary philosophers like Edith Stein, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Paul Sartre amongst others. His completed works and manuscripts have been archived in Leuven since his death in 1939. I’d then take them for a coffee in the legendary café Gambrinus – old school, classic, authentic and beautiful. Next, a visit to M-Museum – essential. If peckish, I’d take them for dinner in one of Leuven’s many Nepalese restaurants, as there’s a great Nepalese community here. And in the evening, catch a contemporary dance piece by an up-and-coming choreographer at STUK. We’d then finish off the day with a few drinks in the new and cosy bar De Optimist run by a very nice, young bunch at a great location on Vismarkt square.

A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?

In 1972 the great and already established Jacques Lacan gave a lecture at KU Leuven. A young anarchist student walked up to the front of the lecture hall, and started destroying the notes of the psychoanalyst. University staff tried to kick the student out, which lead him to give some sort of speech where he justified why he was acting in such a manner. Lacan remained very graceful and calm under the attack, and a sort of dialogue or debate eventually ensued. The anti-authoritarian, rhetoric act of the student against one of the world’s most renowned intellectuals, and the debate which came out of this altercation gives me a sense of what the actual spirit of Leuven was in 1972. I’d like to believe that this spirit somehow, even if in another form, still exists in Leuven today – but that’s another story. This moment of local history was filmed by the Belgian filmmaker Françoise Wolff, and you can find some of this rare footage on YouTube.