JR: art with a conscience
Forced migration is the inspiration for ‘photograffeur’ JR’s first ever show in Italy
The artist known as JR started out in the 1990s, a teenager dispensing graffiti around the banlieue of Paris where he grew up. Now 40, he makes art much further afield: in Ukraine, Rwanda, Mauritania, Colombia and the Greek island of Lesbos, in the case of his latest exhibition.
Being held at Gallerie d’Italia – Torino, the museum of Intesa Sanpaolo banking group in Turin, JR – Déplacé·e·s is his first show in Italy. “Very few artists bring big societal issues to the table in such an engaging way,” says the exhibition curator, Arturo Galansino. “JR is unique.” The societal issue currently under the artist’s consideration is forced migration.
Over the past year, he has visited refugee camps across the globe: a timely move, given the UN Refugee Agency’s announcement in May 2022 that the number of people who have been “forced to flee due to persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations and events seriously disturbing public order” has exceeded 100 million. The photographs and videos taken by JR on his trips form the basis of the exhibition in Turin. (Déplacé·e·s is the French word for displaced people.)
The stars of the show are Valeriia (from Ukraine), Thierry (from Rwanda), Jamal (from Mauritania), Andiara (from Colombia) and Mozhda (from Greece), five children from refugee camps whose portraits will be well-known to visitors by the exhibition’s end.
A couple of days before JR – Déplacé·e·s opened, the artist organised a flash mob of 1,200 people, who carried five huge tarpaulin sheets across Turin’s central square, Piazza San Carlo, into the museum.
Each sheet had the photograph of one of the five children printed on it, and three of these – along with a video of the flash-mob performance, captured from above by drone – are now on view in the exhibition.
The artist – who didn’t go to art school and whose parents hail from Tunisia – has always put community and social justice at the heart of his work. One project, in 2008, involved pasting massive photos of the eyes and faces of local women all over the walls of a hillside favela in Rio de Janeiro. The previous year, he had pasted portraits of Israelis and Palestinians on either side of the border wall that divides those two peoples’ territories.
JR has 1.7 million followers on Instagram, for whom he posts regular updates of his projects. Given the contentious, at times dangerous, nature of his practice, it’s perhaps no surprise that he refuses to reveal his real name (JR is just a moniker) – or be seen in public without a pair of sunglasses and a trilby hat.
He doesn’t even consider himself an artist per se, preferring to be described by the neologism photograffeur: reflecting the fact that photography is at the core of what he does, yet he adopts it for the context of the street (harking back to his roots in graffiti).
"One of the interesting things about JR is that he approaches issues in what you might call a neutral way. He raises questions rather than gives answers. With the images of the children [from refugee camps], the obvious thing might have been to show them sad or downtrodden. However, they are all shown smiling, enjoying a happy moment of play, with an air of youthful hope about them. They may be in a tragic situation, but JR shows their humanity."
Arturo Galansino, curator
“It’s worth adding that JR never simply visits a place, does his work, and then leaves,” Galansino says. “He always gets to know members of the local community. He invites them to collaborate in his projects and, one might say, to empower themselves in the process.”
JR may not regard himself as an artist, but there’s no denying the artistic element to his practice. He is fond, for instance, of deploying his photographs in a trompe l'oeil fashion – perhaps the most famous example being the time, in 2016, when he seemed to make the pyramid outside the Louvre Museum in Paris disappear.
Without wishing to give away anything that might detract from the visitor experience in Turin, it can be stated here that JR – Déplacé·e·s also includes a trompe l'oeil work. “JR is an artist who, with talent and sensibility, transforms art into social commitment,” says Giovanni Bazoli, Chairman Emeritus of Intesa Sanpaolo. “This exhibition confirms that Gallerie d’Italia - Torino is a place open to reflection on the most urgent challenges of today.
“The initiative also expresses the fundamental values of Intesa Sanpaolo’s Progetto Cultura, a longstanding initiative aimed at building an enhanced, inclusive society by leveraging the immense potential of culture.”
The exhibition, which is being staged in collaboration with the Compagnia di San Paolo Foundation, runs at the Gallerie d’Italia - Torino until July 16.