Helping people is difficult. Recently, I heard a completely logical and sincere argument that “empowering” people is a colonialist concept. So what’s a caring person to do? Donate to the Red Cross? If you’re a street artist looking to use your art and resources to skip over that middlemen and effect change directly, it can get even more complicated. That’s what Banksy and JR have discovered this fall.
Earlier this month, we mentioned that supplies from Dismaland were sent to Calais, where they were used to cloth and house refugees. Then, some aid workers stole Banksy’s “Dismal aid” sign. Okay, admittedly, the sign wasn’t essential to as a shelter, but it spoke to the situation and helped raise awareness for the plight of migrants in Calais. So it did serve a purpose. What’s next? Will aid workers start stealing the spare Dismaland shirts and hoodies that were distributed to the refugees? I guess those could go on eBay. Undoubtedly, Banksy and his team were doing good in Calais, and with minimal fanfare. But aid workers are claiming that Banksy was just there for the publicity, which is a pretty ridiculous claim. I mean, Dismaland had already gotten its fair share of press. If this was about attention, shouldn’t Banksy have just put up a stencil in central London or something? That seems like it would have been a lot easier than building shelters in a foreign country.
JR seems to be facing a similar problem with a project of his from back in 2009: His Women Are Heroes installation in Kibera, Kenya, shown above. For that action, JR photographed women in Kibera and printed their portraits onto vinyl sheets, which were then installed as roofing material on a few of the homes in the slum. You might think that it was a clever method of creating art for an international audience while simultaneously providing a much-needed service to the local community. Or you could see Kibera as a gold mine to be exploited.
The charity Water Is Life sent a team (accompanied by a film crew) to Kibera to “steal” (actually it was done with permission) a piece of JR’s work and put a new roof in its place. The idea was that they could take these JR pieces, bring them to the United States, and sell them for a lot of money, which would then go into funding Water Is Life’s work.
They made this snazzy video about the whole thing (Water Is Life actually removed the video from their own account for unknown reasons, but other copies are available online):
Okay, so, aside from referring to the residents of Kibera the “mark” in this “heist” and the generally murky ethics of selling work from the street, I think I can acknowledge there is the seed of a good idea here: Build better roofs for people who need them, and make money for water projects while you do it. Great.
Unfortunately, things went a little pear-shaped. The printed tarp that was sold for about $10,000 at Julien’s Auctions probably isn’t actually by JR. According to the Guardian:
“After his initial installation six years ago, JR formed a foundation, which continues to add new tarpaulins to uncovered houses in Kibera. These later works feature photographs shot by local kids. JR says the piece Deutsch auctioned was not by him, but is instead one of these later prints, by a young, unknown Kenyan.”
Also in the Guardian, JR points out that the ethics and practical implications of selling the work aren’t quite so rosy as Water Is Life would like to have you believe. For one thing, Water Is Life is trying to create a market for JR street pieces out of Kibera, and they are saying it’s a million dollar market. If residents suddenly believe, rightly or wrongly, that their roofs are worth a million dollars, that could create absolute chaos. And then there’s the question of whether Water Is Life is exploiting these residents by giving them pennies on the dollar for products that the charity will then go out and sell to fund Water Is Life’s own projects. Finally, the whole idea of going and taking these JR pieces seems to imply that the work JR did in Kibera was basically frivolous, but that Water Is Life’s work is valuable.
It’s all very strange. JR tries to do something good, and then a charity swoops in to disrupt his work and exploit the people he was trying to help. Now, JR says he might have to stop working in Kibera. What if this same problem spreads to other places where he has worked, as it has with the removal of Banksy’s work from the street?
So if you see Water Is Life trying to sell a tarp out of Kibera, buyer beware. It might not be what you think it is, and it’s only because art collectors create demand for street pieces that they have any possible value. Plus, the artist that you’re such a fan of? He doesn’t support your purchase. Is there a million dollars worth of art sitting in a Kenyan slum? Only if we all decide that there is.
Update – November 20th, 2015: One more story should have been included in this post. So here it is… London-based street artist Stik is facing similar troubles to JR, except this case seems even more clear-cut. No surprise: The villain is a posh art gallery. A public mural that Stik painted years ago with children in Poland has been sliced up and shipped to the UK to be sold. If the pieces do sell, it could disrupt Stik’s market for legitimate studio works, which isn’t so great when you’re trying to make a living. So now, an artist like Stik has to wonder: Should I be painting murals if they could later be resold? And what of the children who helped paint the piece, and the local town that enjoyed it? So yeah, doing good for people is complicated once shady art dealers get involved.
Photo by JR