What is art? It’s a question that has challenged many a great and mediocre thinker, inspiring massive books, probing articles, and stoned banter.
It’s also a question that emerged again and again during the course of JR’s massive “Women Are Heroes” photo project, as he attempted to convince hungry, traumatized women in conflict zones to let him plaster huge photographs of their faces on the walls of the very communities they lived in. “Why?” they wondered. “What’s the point?”
One Liberian man had a rather brilliant explanation when another villager asked him these very questions about JR’s work. “You have been here for a moment looking at the portraits, asking questions, trying to understand,” he replied. “During that time, you haven’t thought about what you will eat tomorrow. This is art.”
The photos here come from the new book Women Are Heroes: A Global Project by JR. JR is a French photographer and street artist who prefers to stay anonymous (though with a little Googling it’s not too hard to find out more about his actual identity). The 29-year-old artist has roots in the graffiti world and has been pasting his photos on walls since 2002. He attracted attention in 2006 when he put enormous images of young people on the facades of housing projects in Paris and photos of Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank Barrier. He began the project in 2008 and two years later won the 2011 Ted prize, which meant $100,000 dollars to fuel his wish to “use art to turn the world inside out.”
His book features portraits of the women he encountered in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan, Kenya, Brazil, and India as well as photos of these portraits blown up and pasted in public spaces. He refers to these women as “heroines of daily life”: women who had been served a rough lot but maintained a glimmer of hope in their eyes. With the help of his large team of assistants, he photographed them and recorded their stories of rape, poverty, HIV, alienation, and loss. He asked them about their hopes and dreams, their regrets and desires.
Up to this point, his project fits the mold of thousands of other projects by Western journalists and photographers over the years. But instead of bringing his photos back home to show in a gallery or magazine in the U.S., JR turned his subjects’ communities into his exhibit space.
The walls, roofs, trains, empty pools, and alleyways of these conflict- and poverty-torn places become JR’s museum. He blew up his photos and printed them on paper (or in Kenya, where weather conditions were too harsh for paper to stand up to, on vinyl). JR and his team didn’t ask permission from officials; they asked permission from locals. Getting the photos up became a community effort, sometimes involving as many as 100 people, both locals and foreigners. The most interesting photos in the book are the images of his makeshift public galleries.
In the Kibera district of Nairobi, Kenya, for example, JR decided that the best way to show off the faces of local women was to put the bottom half of each face on a sheet of corrugated iron below train tracks and the top half on the side of a train that regularly passed over the tracks. That meant that each day as the train passed through, top and bottom half would match up, creating a complete face for a few magical seconds.. Coordinating such a complex project required the help of many people, including the train engineer. By the end of the project, many individuals who had never set foot in an art museum had become artists. And women who had felt ignored and marginalized by their community for decades became—at least for a brief while—its large and mysterious stars.
You don’t need to know the back story of what these women have been through to appreciate the power of their faces. For those who are interested, however, the book offers something that the photos can’t: the details of the horrors they have faced. Sara Toe’s smile obscures the fact that she lost three children during the civil war in Liberia and one shortly afterward. Seeing a photo of young men proudly pasting her image onto cement in Monrovia is all the more powerful knowing what other young men have done to her. Among other travesties, she watched a group of rebels cut open her pregnant daughter’s belly and remove the fetus.
Similarly, the photo of Haya Massaley’s eyes and cheeks on the bottom of an empty pool in Monrovia is arresting on its own. Learn more about her story, however, and it becomes heartbreaking. The book explains that at the time she was photographed, Massaley’s three children were in the hospital and she had been kicked out of the house where they were staying. She had no money, no place to sleep. “I think I am strong. But now I don’t have anything to support the children … I want to give the baby I am breast-feeding to people for free, because I have nothing,” she told JR’s team.
Through the text, written by Marco Berrebi, we learn that in India, JR found a way around uncooperative authorities: He pasted what appeared to be plain white paper to public walls a few days before Holi, the colorful spring solstice festival. What no one else realized at first was that the paper contained adhesive in the shape of outlines from his photos, so when men threw handfuls of paint during the Holi celebration, women’s faces were revealed.
It’s moving to read about how locals, young and old, men and women, embraced this ambitious project. In Rio de Janeiro’s Morro de Providencia favela, a notorious neighborhood that taxi drivers won’t go to, the community threw JR’s team a party on their last day.
“Even the big tough guys of the favela, with guns and bulletproof vests, were sad to see us leave,” JR recalls in the book. His projects created public art evangelists in each city he worked in. On his final day in Rio, a local teenager made an astute pronouncement: “With a bullet, you can get one man; with a photo, you can get 100.”
As with all of his work, JR eventually found a way to share it with a larger audience. In addition to appearing in the book, many of these photos have been exhibited in public spaces and galleries in other parts of the world.
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