Born the child of two Egyptian Jew immigrants living in Marseille, director and creator of Brooklyn’s Invisible Dog Art Center Lucien Zayan claims that he learned the value of moving forward despite the trappings of his past at an early age.
“My family left Egypt in 1956, during the Suez Crisis. My family had lost absolutely everything. Because of that, my dad told me to always be ready to leave if I have to. You always leave with what you have and don’t look back. I practiced that every day of my life.”
As he grew up in France, Zayan was quick to heed the words of his father; if he ever found himself in a situation he didn’t like, he would change it without hesitation. The earliest example was his decision to drop out of school. “I didn’t like school, so I decided to stop when I was 16. My parents had moved back to Egypt at the time, so I kept it a secret from them.
"I didn’t like school because I didn’t like the way we learned things. I spent my time listening to music and reading books, which was much more interesting.”
After leaving school Zayan worked a series of odd jobs, trying his hand at hair dressing and acting, but spending most of his time working in restaurants. Still, Zayan felt that the passion he was searching for in his work eluded him. As he neared the end of his teenage years, he decided to visit Egypt for a summer—a decision that proved more faithful than he could have ever imagined.
Crashing the party
“Upon arriving in Alexandria, Egypt, Zayan was urged by his family to visit the French cultural center. Word had gotten around that there was a new director, and Zayan’s interest had been piqued by an upcoming workshop. Unfortunately, Zayan was met with resistance when he showed up; the center was only open to Egyptian citizens, and as a holder of a French passport Zayan was denied entry. But Zayan had another plan."
Lucien and his mom
“As always, when someone tells me no, I became even more curious. So I stayed in the lobby as they were setting up the table for the lunch; I figured I would just wait for the director there and try to talk to him. Then this young girl came in and saw me and asked if I was there for the lunch and I just immediately said yes.”
Doing his best to blend into the crowd, Zayan chatted with the woman until they were ushered to their seats. Much to his surprise, Zayan had fortuitously been placed on the right hand side of none other than the director himself.
“I remember he asked if I was with the company. I said no, and then the girl looked at me real curiously and asked who I was. So I just confessed said that I actually wasn’t invited. They both laughed a lot—they found it very funny.”
Zayan explained his plight to the director, how he had been turned away from the workshop on account of his citizenship status. Whether charmed by Zayan’s bravado or moved by pity, the director decided to offer a solution. If Zayan agreed to work as his assistant, the director would ensure his attendance at the workshop.
“I said yes, of course, and then returned home and told my mom that I found a job. The job was for two weeks. I ended up staying there for three years.”
After his bouts of uncertainty with his previous jobs, Zayan had found a role where he felt he belonged.
“I had thought I wanted to be an actor, but I just wanted to be a star. I realized I didn’t want to be an artist, but I wanted to work with artists. It was there that I finally discovered there was a backstage.”
Lucien at a reception with the Ambassador of USA, during his time at the French Cultural Institute in Alexandria, Egypt
The Life Backstage
After rounding out his time in Egypt, Zayan decided to move back to France to continue pursuing a career behind the curtain. He started off as an usher, but within a matter of two years had worked his way up to a position as the public relations director of Théàtre de Odeon, one of France’s most renowned theaters.
But even though many would see working at Théàtre de Odeon as the pinnacle of achievement in French theater, staying still had never been Zayan’s strong suit. After putting in five years, Zayan took a few more jobs in France before looking for the new setting for his life’s next chapter.
“For my last job in France I was a co-director for a dance festival. All of a sudden, everything went wrong. It was actually the first time I had a bad working experience. It affected me a lot, and that’s the reason why I decided to leave.”
After taking a year-long sabbatical during which he visited some of Europe’s most renowned theaters, Zayan came to a conclusion.
“After 9 months I realized the year was ending very soon—I still had no idea what I was going to do. I said ‘Okay, I’m still in my comfort zone in Europe. I need to go somewhere far, where I don’t know anyone.’ New York City was the first city I thought of.”
No Money, No Network, No Coat: A New York Tale
With his father’s words ringing in his ears, Zayan left his life in France behind without so much as a second thought. He knew if he was going to make it in New York, he could only be focused on what was to come. After squaring away for a place to stay, Zayan made his journey across the Atlantic in 2008.
“The beginning was really tough here. It was the start of the recession. I had no money, no network, no friends, and no coat—it was fucking cold. I got a room in an apartment from a friend. It wasn’t a bedroom, but a mattress in a corridor. When I said they had promised bedroom, they just smiled at me and said, ‘Welcome to New York.’”
With an intrepid nonchalance, Zayan dismisses these trials and tribulations as merely being part of the experience. Pitfalls come with the territory for any immigrant, but what Zayan said struck him most in the early years were the little differences that would crop up when you were least expecting.
“I still remember the first time I took the bus and I was so proud that everything went well. I was waiting for the door to open so I could get off, then all of a sudden I hear from behind me, ‘Hey could you open the door please?’ It’s small, but it’s the details—like not knowing you’re supposed to open the door on the bus—that make the difference.”
Finding an Invisible Dog
Slowly but surely, Zayan was beginning to feel more at home in New York, but one crucial element was still missing: a reason to be there. He had come over on a tourist visa, which only permitted him to stay a total of 3 months. If he was to stay longer, he would need to start working. Fortunately, much like all those years ago back in Egypt, Zayan again found himself in the right place at the right time.
“One day I found this gallery by coincidence. The owner was opening it the next week and needed some help setting up.”
After lending a hand, Zayan inquired about the rooms above the gallery. After meeting the landlord and getting a brief tour, Zayan had found his reason to stay in in New York.
First year at The Invisible Dog. Photo Credit: Malcolm Brown
“The building inspired me to start my project—I had fallen in love with it. I told the landlord that I would like to make an art project with the space here. He said I could do whatever I wanted so long as I could pay the rent. Of course I couldn’t, I had no money, but I said ‘Oh yes, absolutely.’”
Eventually, the landlord became his first and main supporter.
With that, The Invisible Dog was born. Zayan set to work immediately renovating the location, stripping it of all the furniture and leftover odds and ends. All the while, he worked with an immigration lawyer to secure his visa. The Invisible Dog premiered its first show in October of 2009, and now in 2018 the gallery is preparing to celebrate its 10th anniversary.
Invisible Dog Annual Fundraiser on Kickstarter in October 2017
"I always love multidisciplinary, when artists from different horizon collaborate together. I had in mind this time when composers were working with choreographers, painters with theater directors. With over 3000 square feet available, 51 Bergen street, the home of The Invisible Dog in Brooklyn was the perfect space for that."
It’s easy to look at Zayan’s success as a product of his seemingly inexhaustible momentum, but in his opinion it is not simply his own forward-thinking mentality that’s gotten him where he is, but the energy of New York City itself.
“You have no fear in New York City. You’re like kids here, you just do things. Anything can happen at any time.”
Of course, Zayan’s story wouldn’t be complete if he chose to settle down. After 10 years, it certainly seems there is something about New York that seems to have enchanted him more than anywhere else, but even now he still has his eyes on the next horizon.
“People always said that I’d love New York, that it was made for me. But a friend once said I won’t realize how much I loved it until the day I have to leave it. I think know already how much I’m going to miss it, but even then it will be a new chapter. That’s life.”