Women Are Heroes: A Global Project by JR
Harry N. Abrams, 2012
Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
Arriving in Sierra Leon, Liberia, Sudan, or Kenya, I realized that the men were holding the streets and I would have to confront them … they would be the curators of my exhibitions.
Sometimes a photo is more than a photo.
Sometimes it is a statement of place, sometimes of identity, sometimes it can be a process for interaction, and sometimes it can be a solution. Sometimes, even if it cannot change the past, it can act in such a way as to be a mechanism for hope and a handle on the future.
The anonymous French artist known as JR started making his marks when he was fifteen. He worked as a graffiti artist and was drawn to rooftops and underground spaces of the Paris metro. “Each trip was an excursion, was an adventure, it was like leaving our mark on society.” A chance discovery of a cheap camera in the metro led him to start documenting the activities of both himself and his friends. He then printed these photos, posted them, and tagged them. His graffiti work was now an ad hoc sidewalk gallery. He dubbed it Expo 2 Rue.
The city is the best gallery I could imagine. I would never have to make a book and then present it to a gallery, and let them decide if my work was nice enough to show to people. I would confront the public directly – in the street.
This is the essence of JR’s work: flyposting photographic portraits (with neither official permission, nor corporate endorsement) on a large scale, in the public space. The protean nature of paper makes the postings behave like an environmental sculpture, slowly disintegrating over time. Power washers also quickly remove them. Like much street art, JR’s work contests the ubiquitous incursion of adverizing and corporate interest in the built environment. As defiantly stated by Banksy:
Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.
You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you.
After the 2005 Paris riots JR’s subject matter quickly became political. He went into the housing projects to photograph youth. He used a 28mm lens. “It was the only lens I had at the time, but with that lens, you have to be as close as 10 inches from the person. So you can only do it with their trust.” These images were blown up and pasted in the more affluent areas of the city. A year latter the city itself got behind the project and the images were put up as part of Murs de la Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris.
JR had an epiphany when he saw how images of youth from the housing projects, vilified in the media during the 2005 riots, could be repurposed in the public space. “The subjects could regain control over their own images. That’s when I realized the power of paper … and glue.” The series was called Portrait of a Generation.
Women Are Heroes documents the third project in the 28 Millimeter series. The second one, Face2Face involved pasting huge portraits of Palestinians and Israelis side by side on the Security Wall in Jerusalem. The Ephemeral nature of paper is an important part of the work. “You know, when you paste an image it’s just paper and glue. People can tear it, tag it, even pee on it. The people in the street are the curators. The rain and the wind will take them off anyway – they are not meant to stay.”
With the third project JR has enlarged not only his portraits but his geographic coverage. He sought out women in Sierra-Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Kenya, Brazil, India, and Cambodia. These are complex interventions involving a deep level of engagement with the community. In the favela of Morro da Providência, a shanty-town within Rio de Janeiro, JR worked with groups of children on small scale work, getting locals to take photographs and then past their own cut-out portraits. Once trust was established he moved onto his principle project – taking portraits of the women of the favela and completely covering the sides of houses with their faces.
The book provides an explanation of how the work was carried out in the different countries. In Kibera, for example, (a section of Nairobi that contains the largest shantytown in East Africa), vinyl was used and the portraits were put on the roof, thus providing both art and a valuable building material. In India, where posting images was almost certain to be stopped by the police, they put up white sheets with the images printed in a sticky adhesive. The dust of the road (or the coloured powders of the Holi festival) made the portraits appear much later, once the paper hangers had left.
Women Are Heroes also contains the original portraits of the subjects and their stories. Told in the first person, the stories are a catalogue of life similar to that presented in Fazal Sheik’s Portraits. The narratives are difficult and painful, yet as the title of the book suggests, there is an inspiring resolve to live.
Although Jr is now one of the most famous artists in the world (having won the 2011 TED prize, and commanding gallery space in most major cities), he continues to see his art as a way for communities to recover their own identity. He refuses to sign, or author the work and he insists that it cannot have any corporate affiliation whatsoever. His TED prize wish (Inside Out) was to complete another project in which he removed himself as photographer from the production of portraits. Instead people sent photos to him, which he printed and sent back to be used in a series of orchestrated installations all over the world.
Other street artists to make it big have not been so idealistic. Shepard Fairey (of Giant: Obey, and the famous – and later controversial – Obama HOPE poster) was always a guerrilla for hire. As far back as 2000 his company Black Market Inc. was offering up the stencil and the sticker to the likes of Pepsi, Hasbro and NBC. (PRINT May/June 2000)
What JR has shown, and what Women Are Heroes so clearly details, is that the concept of photography and gallery can be exploded to the point where exhibition space can be anything from a Parisian bridge to the boxcars of a Kenyan train. But maybe, if the gallery is the world, the only appropriate thing to do is hold up a mirror – showing just a few of the millions of women who quietly endure adversity to live life with determination and stoic heroism.
Disclosure – A copy of Women Are Heroes was purchased in a bookstore. All quotes from JR appear in his TED talk: JR’s TED Prize wish: Use art to turn the world inside out