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Penkava: Changing the world with paper and glue

Photos on roofs of houses in Kenya.
Photos on roofs of houses in Kenya.

JR started out as a tagger – a delinquent who spray-paints graffiti. He roamed the streets of Paris, tagging walls and roofs and the warrens of the underground Metro.

He found an old camera and started taking photos of his friends and their adventures tagging the city of Paris. JR pasted photos of them on walls, using the city as his canvas and leaving his mark on society, as if he was saying, “We exist.”

He grouped his photos together and created sidewalk galleries. Some, ironically, were vandalized, but many survived. As time went on, his posters became larger and larger, often filling entire walls of buildings.

Then came the Paris riots in 2005. Sparked by a clash between youths and the police, the city was filled with violence, burning and looting.

But in the TV coverage of this unrest, JR saw an image of one of his photos on a wall in the background. How strange it was for him to see the eyes of his friends staring back at him, reflected in the light of burning cars and decorated with the debris of discontent.

He returned to the scene with his camera, taking close-up portraits of people from the area, creating huge posters and pasting them wherever he found a place for them.

So moving were these images that a year later a gallery of a collection of them was exhibited on the walls of the City Hall of Paris. When JR saw his art finally meeting with official approval, he realized the power of paper and glue, and he started to wonder … could art change the world?

A year later the Palestinian/Israeli conflict caught JR’s attention, and he and a friend decided to go there and use his art to find out who were the real Palestinians and Israelis. Were they really so different?

JR took photos of Palestinians and Israelis who did the same jobs – taxi drivers, cooks, lawyers. He asked them to pose for the camera. Some smiled. Some just stared.

JR asked them if they could be shown next to each other and they all agreed. He paired these photos and pasted them in eight Israeli and Palestinian cities. It was the largest illegal art exhibit in the world. JR called it, “Face to Face.”

As people gathered around his photos, JR explained the project and asked them if they could tell who was the Israeli and who was the Palestinian. Most could not say. JR’s art had brought enemies together without them even knowing it.

He later traveled all around the world doing a project called “Women Are Heroes.” Photographs of faces of generations of women adorned towns and villages. Near Rio de Janeiro, there is an entire hillside of homes with faces of women staring at whoever looks up.

Wherever JR went, the people asked him what he was doing. He just told them it was art and left the meaning up to the people themselves.

One person explained to another, “You’ve been here for a few hours and have not thought about what you will eat tomorrow. This is art.”

In Kenya, JR put his giant photos on the rooftops of the houses. One woman said, “Now God can see me.”

JR discovered how to empower people without a voice through the art of their own images. In this way, he puts a human face on the world’s canvas.

He says it’s like turning the world inside out; beneath conflict and controversy and crisis lies the flesh and blood of humanity. JR’s art uncovers it and leaves the rest to us.

Please visit http://insideoutproject.net for amazing photos and stories and also watch JR’s presentations, “JR: My Wish: Use Art to Turn the World Inside Out” and “JR: One Year of Turning the World Inside Out” on TED Talks.

• Michael Penkava taught a bunch of kids and wrote a bunch of stuff. He believes in the power of paper and glue. And art. He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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