French artist JR takes public art to the next level. For nearly two decades, he’s made huge black-and-white photo installations in collaboration with local communities across the world. In this Artist’s Artist, we take a look at the backstory.

3 min read

During the 2005 French riots, JR watched a news report when he spotted something familiar in the background of a news report in Paris: "And then I saw it – could it be possible? My photo on a wall, revealed by a burning car."

The media made the rioters seem like monstrous thugs, but JR knew better. "These were the faces of my friends," he explains in one of his TED Talks.

All of them are not angels, but they're not monsters either.

So JR decided to take intimate portraits of Paris youth pulling 'scary' faces to mock how the media saw them. He put the pictures up in public places in Paris using his signature technique, where he prints photos onto paper and pastes them onto buildings with glue.

In some ways, art can change the world. Art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world.

Portrait of a Generation, Byron, Paris, 20ème arrondissement, 2004

Portrait of a Generation, Omar, Paris, 20ème arrondissement, 2004

Since then, JR has used art to amplify the real human voices behind the news. He calls his work 'infiltrating art' because he infiltrates and collaborates with the communities he works with. The artworks are not just his – they are a collaborative effort between him, his team and the participants.

A really important point for me is that I don't use any brand or corporate sponsors. So I have no responsibility to anyone but myself and my subjects.

Two of his seminal projects, Women are Heroes and Women, Life, Freedom, celebrate women's power in society, particularly in conflict zones. The project has travelled to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the Kibera neighbourhood in Kenya's capital city, Nairobi, and Bo City in Sierra Leone, to name a few.

In 2016, JR was asked to create an installation at one of the most famous museums in the world, the Louvre, in his hometown, Paris. He made the iconic pyramid an illusion, making it look like the building wasn't even there. In 2019, he was asked to create another project, and this time, he made a dramatic and dangerous-looking valley around the pyramid.

One of JR's favourite places to display his art is a wall. But in his art, he is trying to take down walls rather than build them.

There's more that connects us than separates us. We're all the same people. We've created these divisions, but we're all the same, all one human race.

Women Are Heroes, Action in Favela Morro da Providencia, Rio de Janeiro, 2008

JR at the Louvre Museum, The Pyramid, June 21th 06:20 p.m, Paris, 2016

One wall he exhibited on was Donald Trump's infamous wall between Mexico and the United States border. As one of the instalments of his project, Migrants, Picnics Across the Border, JR set up a picnic table on either side of the wall. In a wonderful twist of fate, the artist ended up having a cup of tea across the Mexico-United States border with a patrol officer.

Another project JR worked on was in a maximum security prison wall in California. JR worked with the prisoners there to create a monumental artwork in their courtyard, and they also created an app where you could hear more about each prisoner's personal story.

JR was also an artist-in-residence at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and his project Déplacé·e·s has travelled across the world raising awareness about the millions of refugee children fleeing war, climate change and social instability.

By the nature of working in public spaces, JR encounters many people while working. People often ask him: "Are you an NGO, or are you the media?" And he always has a straightforward reply: "Art. Just doing art."

Migrants, Picnic Across the Border, Tecate, Mexico - USA, 2017

Tehachapi, The Yard, California, 2019

Déplacé.e.s, Procession, Triptyque, Turin, Italy, 2023



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