Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya (2009)
In Rio de Janeiro’s longest-serving slum, dozens of gigantic, black and white eyeballs stare up from the dilapidated rooftops. They’re an incredible sight and represent the achievement of just one man: “JR,” an anonymous French artist who hides behind shades and a trilby but who exhibits on a very public scale.
JR finds his muses in countries ravaged by civil war and extreme poverty. His enormous black-and-white portraits wrap around derelict inner city buildings and stretch out over corrugated iron rooftops, pasting the haunting human face of female suffering in destitute parts of Sierra Leone, India and Kenya as well as Brazil. This is art on a very different canvas.
JR’s fascination with street art found its first outlet on the walls of Paris. At 14, the teenage graffiti writer got his kicks spraying his name on perilous Parisian surfaces, leaving his mark on the housetops and underbelly of the city.
Three years later, though, JR found an abandoned Samsung camera on the Paris Métro and turned to documenting other artists at work. He has described his first pastings as an “expo de rue,” or “sidewalk gallery.” They were small A4 photocopies of his peers posted on Parisian street walls and outlined by a lick of paint.
For an artist who often prefers to color outside the lines of legality – and on the margins of society – the French city provided the perfect canvas. “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 it to people,” he explained in a 2011 TED talk. “I would control it directly with the public in the streets.”
This pursuit took JR across Europe photographing urban artists as they decorated cities across the continent. But it was back in his hometown, after the Paris riots erupted in 2005, that the artist established his credentials as a political activist. He began snapping youths in Les Bosquets, the suburban housing projects at the heart of the anarchy.
The young men were pictured in exaggerated poses, mocking the prejudiced stereotypes splashed over the French media. “All of them are not angels, but they’re not monsters either,” JR declared in his TED talk. Over the next decade, then, and wherever the media reported conflict, JR followed with his camera, shooting from a different perspective.
While the artist works semi-anonymously behind the initials JR, his portraits themselves occupy highly visible positions in public landscapes. “When I started pasting other people’s portraits on the street, it was like I was writing their name,” he explained to CNN in 2012. “So why would I put my name forward?”
And JR’s socio-artistic projects have taken him into some of the most turbulent and troubled regions of the globe. In his 2007 “Face 2 Face” project, for example, he controversially – and unlawfully – juxtaposed huge portraits of Israelis and Palestinians, pasting them shoulder to shoulder on both sides of the security divide. It was a bid to highlight the physical similarities between those in the two factions.
Ducor Intercontinental Hotel, Monrovia, Liberia (2008)
Meanwhile, in 2008 JR began an extensive global project entitled “Women Are Heroes.” For this, he headed into the heartland of some of the harshest landscapes on Earth – countries torn apart by war and poverty, like Sierra Leone and Sudan. With his lens, he then zoomed in on the women making everyday lives there. He recalled to The Guardian in 2010, “I was interested in women because I realised in the projects I’d done before… it was men on the street, but it’s actually the women who are the ones holding the community together.”
And the photographs that JR took formed the basis of his first film, Women Are Heroes, which was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. The images were also collated into a book of the same title, but they are undeniably most impressive in situ in the regions themselves – where, as striking billboards, they offer a fascinating insight into the communities that live behind them.
The subjects of JR’s large-scale African portraits, meanwhile, had experienced poverty, domestic abuse, street crime or political torture and had some harrowing stories to tell as a result. In Liberia, for example, a 90-year-old woman recalled how she had lost both grandchild and daughter – one ripped from the belly of the other. In India, another remembered the day that her daughter was burnt alive. JR, however, presented his subjects without comment or judgement.
But the women that JR has captured on film aren’t cowed in the slightest by their experiences, or so it seems. These female faces stare back at the camera with dignity and defiance – some even pulling humorous faces – and all refusing to divert their gaze. “They all gave me really strong eyes because they knew they would be facing the city,” he remembered.
Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya (2011)
In fact, preserved on film by JR are a woman who opened up her own home to educate orphaned children in war-torn Cambodia, and another who fought back with a knife against attackers in India. They make undeniably compelling subjects, and in featuring them and others like them in his project, JR has offered a counterpoint to the stereotype of the passive female victim.
Furthermore, in his TED talk JR asserted that “art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change perceptions.” And yet in the vast Nairobi slum of Kibera, the artist actually produced some very pragmatic pastings. He went on to add, “This time we covered the roofs of the houses, but we didn’t use paper, because paper doesn’t prevent the rain from leaking inside the house – vinyl does. Then art becomes useful.”
As part of his international project, JR also traveled to the Dey Krahorm slum in Cambodia, where women were resisting government relocation efforts and fighting to stay in their homes. Here, then, his portraits were stuck on doors and roofs, making the women and their struggle visible and helping them, in a way, to lay claim to these contested spaces.
What’s more, women were not only able to show their faces through the project, but also to bring awareness of their life experiences to JR and the wider world. In 2008 JR flew to Brazil’s oldest favela, Rio de Janeiro’s Morro da Providência. And here in this notoriously dangerous settlement – where narcotics kingpins rule and journalists are denied entry – women came forward to pose for photographs. They asked JR for just one simple thing in return: “Please, make our story travel with you.”
For years JR had worked with a 28 mm lens, and it was this that he used to photograph the favela women. However, as he revealed in his TED talk, “[W]ith that lens, you have to be as close as ten inches from the person.” It was a shoot, then, that required a degree of trust on the part of the women – but also one that, due to the comparatively close-up nature of the process, accorded the resulting photos an arresting intimacy.
New Delhi, India (2008)
From these photographs JR created large-scale prints that were then mounted onto the exteriors of the women’s homes and directed out from the hillside of the shanty town. When the work was completed, dozens of magnified female faces eyeballed the city below, and the tables were turned: the favela now looked down on the rest of Rio.
In this photographic and cathartic retelling, the mothers, grandmothers and daughters of the favela became the protagonists of their own stories once more, these being stories that had so often been appropriated and misinterpreted by the media. Furthermore, passersby in Liberia also found themselves drawn into the narrative, caught up in the glance and compelled to wonder about the women staring back at them from the photographs.
And as a result, JR’s pastings, although temporary in their materiality, transcend mere paper and glue. They are art in its most public format, engaging both spectator and subject in a communal experience. “When you paste an image,” the artist revealed in his TED talk, “people can tear it, tag on it, or even pee on it… The people in the street, they are the curator.” In even the harshest of environments, JR’s monochrome portraits undoubtedly show that there can be activism in art and vice versa.