Artist JR is Showing the World the Power of Portraits

NEW YORK—French artist JR gained wide recognition after receiving the first-ever TED Prize in 2011. Known for his socially conscious and politically motivated street art, JR announced he would use the award funds to launch Inside Out, a worldwide participatory art project. A documentary about Inside Out debuts on HBO today and an exhibit of “The Wrinkles of the City,” another JR portrait project, is currently on view on New York.

Inside Out is a simple idea that has become a global movement. Intended to last one year, it continues today influencing communities throughout the world. The participatory art project is giving local photographers and ordinary people the opportunity to photograph themselves and by hanging their portraits in public spaces have a voice and a presence in their communities, often politically contentious and poverty-stricken regions.

“Inside Out: The People’s Art Project,” the HBO documentary about the effort, was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. The film documents the project which has reached more than 100 places including Colombia, Iran, South Dakota, South Africa, the Bronx New York, Cuba, Russia, Mexico and beyond, where portraits have been displayed using wheat paste.

After receiving digital files from participants, JR’s team prints the large-scale photos in dimensions the artist compares to political posters. Most of the portraits are mailed back to locals who are empowered by pasting up the photos “that transform messages of personal identity into pieces of artistic work” on prominent public walls.

In a few cases featured in the film, JR hand-delivers the posters as he did for local photographers in Tunisia, where some in the politically charged community oppose the project and tear down the portraits. He also traveled to Haiti where a young man living in a temporary housing camp initiated the project and with a small group of friends pastes the posters up around their (still severely) earthquake ravaged city. JR serves as an “assistant” during the hanging process and listens as they share their stories of constant hunger and finding inspiration and hope through photography.

Detail of Rafael Lorenzo and Obdulia Manzano, from “Wrinkles of the City” in Havana.

Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in the Chelsea gallery district of New York is currently exhibiting portraits from another JR project, “The Wrinkles of the City.” A collaboration with Cuban artist José Parlá. The series captures senior citizens who lived through the Cuban revolution. Their photographs, which are transformed by Parlá who “interlaces the images with palimpsestic, calligraphic writings and color,” are pasted on building facades throughout Havana.

“The Wrinkles of the City, Havana” at Bryce Wolkowitz is on view from May 7 to July 12, 2013.

All photos © Arts Observer

Alicia Adela Hernandez Fernanez.

From left, Jose del Valle de Aguila and Felix Rivera Ramirez.

Leda Antonia Mechado.

From left, Santiago Leonardo M. Contreras, Unknown (Man with Jerry Can), and Elio Milanes.

Alfonso Ramon Fontaine Batista.

Installation view of Rafael Lorenzo and Obdulia Manzano.

The “The Wrinkles of the City” exhibit begins outside of the gallery where one of the images is installed on the facade, in a manner similar to how the portraits appear throughout Havana.

JR began “The Wrinkles of the City” in 2008 and has also installed projects in Berlin, Shanghai, Los Angles, and Cartagena, Spain, pasting up large-scale portraits of seniors on public facades in those cities too.

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