Using Art to Break Walls

published Nov. 11, 2018

by Louise Xie

French artist JR turns walls of division and separation into bridges of unity and understanding.

Within a few days of the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that aided 800,000 immigrants, JR installed a massive art piece in the Mexican city Tecate, just an hour southeast of San Diego. It is a larger-than-life photograph of Kikito, a smiling toddler, towering dozens of feet above the border wall. Kikito is a young boy with long lashes and not a care in the world. He seems to be curiously peering over the wall into the US side, as if he were just looking out of his crib to crawl towards something that has piqued his interest.

JR’s inspiration came to him in a dream, where he saw an image of an inquisitive child looking over the USA-Mexico wall. He woke up wondering what the child was thinking – after all, young children have no political views and do not understand that concepts of immigration or racism. While searching for residents along the Mexican side of the border who would let him build his project on their land, he met Kikito’s mother and subsequently saw the exact boy he needed for the perfect photo­– her son. After obtaining the mother’s permission, JR snapped a photo, enlarged it to monumental proportions, and got to work.

JR is the pseudonym for the anonymous French photographer and artist. His work is embedded into neighborhoods, favelas, villages, and cities around the world with photographs he takes of the local residents who live there. His work is not focused on him or his talents; it is centered on the people and communities he’s encountered. Whenever he goes to a new place, he listens to someone’s story, takes a picture of them, and then pastes his signature style of black-and-white images of those people onto gargantuan canvases of local buildings, buses, roads, and bridges. As a guerilla artist, his work is not only innovative and provocative, but often illegal – he works with the community to create art while operating under the radar of the authorities. The photographs, typically pasted on already-existing walls, are intentionally made without any descriptions or explanations from JR. Instead, he leaves these photos to the viewers’ interpretation, pushing us out of our comfort zones and igniting dialogue on the current issues that we face today.

Some of JR’s most famous works include Portrait of a Generation (2004-2006), which was an unauthorized exhibition of suburban “thugs” that he pasted on the bourgeois districts of Paris, the biggest illegal exhibition Face 2 Face (2007) composed of Israelis and Palestinian portraits placed face to face within Israeli and Palestinian cities and both sides of the wall, and Women Are Heroes – a homage to all women and their priceless role in society yet still are the main victims of religious or political extremism, rape, war, and other crimes.

Currently, JR travels the world working for Inside Out, his global platform that gives anyone and everyone a voice to share their portrait and identity and to make a personal statement about their beliefs. As of September 2017, over 1,300 group actions have formed and 260,000 portraits have been printed and shipped to 129 countries. You can participate in this artistic phenomenon here.

Related Articles