A photo posted by gaiastreetart (@gaiastreetart) on
Longtime Vandalog contributor Gaia posted an intriguing photo today on Instagram. I’ll let these photos and Gaia’s caption speak for themselves, other than to say that this seems to be the great (largely) unwritten critique of JR within the street art world.
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.
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.
“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.
Apologies that this particular link-o-rama is full of self-promotion and conflicts of interesting, but I do think these are all interesting projects and I hope you do too:
It takes a lot to get my excited about a mural festival, but this year’s Wall\Therapy in Rochester, NY looks great. It’s difficult to put on a mural festival. One short cut is to work with obvious artists. Your festival will look like 50 other festivals, but the walls will probably seem impressive. Wall\Therapy has not gone that route. This year in particular, they put together a surprising and diverse line up to create an arguably cohesive body of new work, and the quality of the murals is still strong pretty much across the board. Check out Brooklyn Street Art’s photos and review for the full story.
From the selections I’ve read, I’m still not sure how I feel about the book What Do One Million Ja Tags Signify? by Dumar Novy, but a philosophy book centered on the work of a prolific graffiti writer seems like something that should at least catch the interest of Vandalog readers.
Shepard Fairey’s latest print about corporate greed and campaign finance reform is about to drop. It’s a nice print, and I’m always glad to see Shepard tackling this important but not particularly sexy topic. Plus, the profits from this print go to two great organizations fighting for campaign finance reform. I’ll just note that Shepard is working on a couple of projects right now for my employer, but campaign finance reform and political corruption really are topics that I care a lot about.
Speaking of my employer, I recently got to work on a really fun project with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and Ben Eine. Back in June, Eine came to Philly for a few days and painted almost 40 of his classic shutter letters. Philly now has a complete Eine alphabet, and then some. Eine’s work can be found throughout the city, but the shutters are definitely clustered in South Philly around Southeast by Southeast, a community center and art space for the neighborhood’s large Southeast Asian refugee community. Brooklyn Street Art has more on this project.
And one more Mural Arts project to mention: JR recently installed a huge mural right in the heart of Philadelphia as part of Open Source, our public art exhibition curated by Pedro Alonzo. The mural is a portrait of Ibrahim Shah, a local food truck chef who came to Philadelphia from Pakistan about a year ago. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a great profile on Ibrahim. I love how this mural looms large on the side of one of the biggest buildings right in the center of Philly, but isn’t actually that visible from the ground except from a few choice locations. Sounds like that could be a problem, I know, but the mural actually pops out from behind buildings in the most surprising places, and catching a glimpse of it winds up being a thrill, a bit of hide and seek. Plus, that game plays into the meaning of the mural, which is about how immigrants are a big part of our cities, but aren’t always celebrated or allowed to be made visible.
Okay, actually, Mural Arts has something coming up with Steve Powers too, but hopefully it will last longer than these signs in NYC! No surprise, a great series of street signs by Powers, installed legally as part of a project with the NYC Department of Transportation, seem to be being ripped down and stolen by greedy collectors or maybe thieves hoping to make a buck. It’s no surprise, but it is still disappointing.
If you’re in New York City, do not miss Faile’s exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s on now, and visiting is a really exciting experience. Vandalog contributing writer Caroline Caldwell currently works as an assistant at Faile’s studio, but even hearing bits and pieces from her as things were coming together did not prepare me for the awesomeness that is Savage/Sacred Young Minds. Without a doubt, the highlight of the exhibition is the latest and (I think) largest iteration of Faile and Bast’s Deluxx Fluxx Arcade, with custom foosball, pinball, and of course video games. It’s just an unabashedly fun experience. Arrested Motion has photos of much of the exhibition.
Last week, Blu shocked Berlin by orchestrating the removal of two of his own iconic murals, including a mural that was at one point a collaboration with JR. The murals were located in the city’s famous Kreuzberg neighborhood, which was once home to squatters and artists, but is now undergoing significant and swift gentrification.
The squatters in the buildings Blu had painted were recently evicted, and a real estate developer is about to build on the empty lot in front of the murals. Apparently, the new condos would have had a great view of the murals. So, one night last week, a team with two lifts painted the walls black, and they did it with Blu’s support.
Blu commented, “After witnessing the changes happening in the surrounding area during the last years, we felt it was time to erase both walls.”
Even though I’m not sure I entirely agree with his actions, I definitely say bravo to Blu for sticking to his principles. I’m sad to see these murals go, but their removal is one of the greatest statements made about street art this year. Blu’s street art is highly political, as was this act. Blu decided what to do with his murals before that right could be taken away from him or the murals could be co-opted by a property developer. He took control of a space, just as he did when he first painted the murals in 2007 and 2008. These pieces were painted for old Kreuzberg, not yuppie Kreuzberg, and the yuppies can’t have them.
Finally, of course, here’s what the murals used to look like (after JR’s wheatpastes had decayed and Blu painted goggles in their place):
Australian street artist Peter Drew recently installed a series of wheatpasted drawings on the streets of downtown Adelaide, Australia. Of course, that sounds like what plenty of street artists do, except that these wheatpastes aren’t Drew’s design. Each wheatpaste is a blown-up version of a drawing by a person seeking asylum in Australia. The project is an effort to take on the veryverycontroversial immigration detention centers in Australia that those seeking asylum in Australia often spend a great deal of time in, and to humanize the asylum-seeking process in general. This isn’t the first time that these facilities have caught the attention of the artworld, but Drew’s project attempts to give the issue a personal touch, which is somewhat less common.
Made up of 36 drawings by seven asylum seekers, the Bound For South Australia series takes some of the most disenfranchised people in the world and attempts to give them a very loud voice. Many of the drawings had to be smuggled out from the Inverbrackie Detention Centre near Adelaide, where many asylum seekers are currently being held (although the facility will be shut down later this year). One particularly key contributor was Ali Rezai, an Afghani teenager who has made his way from Afghanistan to Pakistan and now to Australia and currently holds a temporary Australian visa. This video tells some of his story:
But Ali is the exception. Most of the other works are uncredited. I asked Drew about that decision. Here is his response:
It’s an ethical juggle. The worst thing that could possibly happen from this project would be one of the participants being deported for their participation. For that reason I’ve only revealed the authorship of those participants who have already been issued a bridging visa. Even that took deliberation. There’s a deliberate lack of information from Australia’s Border Protection Force. They seem desperate to send a message to the world’s asylum seekers that Australia is unsympathetic to their plight. That’s why I wanted to protect the names of participants who might still be vulnerable as they could be targeted to be made example of.
In some ways, Bound For South Australia is similar to JR‘s Inside Out Project, which essentially allows anyone to become a mini-JR using JR’s facilities, and both projects suffer from a similar flaw: authorship. Both projects are ostensibly about giving a voice to those who do not have one, amplifying those disenfranchised people’s voices through a megaphone provided by a well-known artist. Except in both cases, the “artist” is a white male who at the end of the day takes credit for the project, and the often non-white participants are somewhat left anonymous or effectively anonymous, arguably used as props by the “lead artist.” In both cases, there’s arguably a reason for that anonymity. JR and Drew have provided a voice to people living in dangerous situations, who may not be in a position to name themselves safely. These situations are probably entirely necessary. Still, they are ironic, and muddy the waters as to how much these projects actually humanize their subjects/participants.
How well can Drew’s project humanize asylum seekers when journalists pick up on the project as a Peter Drew project and the names of the asylum seekers who drew the works that are on Adelaide’s walls, effectively relegated to the role of technicians, are kept secret? It is telling that even Drew seems to conceive of this as a Peter Drew artwork, not a series of 36 artworks facilitated or installed by Drew.
What if, in Drew’s case, he had not actually claimed responsibility for the wheatpastes? Would an anonymously distributed press release, or a press release distributed by a human rights organization without Drew’s name, or no press release or explanation at all, have gotten the same attention for the project? I’m not sure. On some level, Drew is taking advantage of the very people he is trying to help, but I get the sense that such exploitation may be necessary for the success of the project, a project with the admirable goal of awareness about the asylum seeking process in Australia.
Note from RJ: A version of this essay by Christian Guémy aka C215 was recently published in French with Rue89, but we both felt it was important to publish a version in English as well. – RJ
For some time, and especially since the English artist Banksy has enjoyed worldwide success, hardly a week goes by without the media reporting an event involving the urban arts, whether it’s a gallery showing “street art,” or auctions of “graffiti,” or the setting up of an “open air museum,” or pure and simple repression of vandalism.
It’s clear that recognition by the public and the media of urban arts has arrived at its apogee, and achieved the summits of popularity. Even so, I am astonished by the absence of distinction among the various practices that make up urban art. Their reclassification into a gigantic ragbag conveniently called “street art” obscures more than it clarifies.
I’m 40 and I’ve been closely involved with urban art since 1984, which is when Sydney presented in France his cult television show “H.I.P. H.O.P.” I tried my hand at graffiti in 1989 and since then I have closely followed the progress of this kind of art. It seems that several “generations” have gone by since, each having very different ambitions and practices that deserve distinction.
JR and José Parlá collaborated on a mural on the outside of Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, where they have a two-man show opening next week. Glad to see Parlá working outdoors, but it always strikes me as a bit odd since he tries to distance his work from graffiti. I guess when there’s a show to promote… Although to be fair, the show is about a series of collaborative murals that JR and Parlá made together in Cuba.
JR’s Inside Out project booth in Times Square is a huge hit. He’s been covering the street with photos of people who stop by his little photobooth, and it looks awesome. The billboards in Times Square were even (briefly) givenover to JR for the project. The whole thing is a fight against outdoor ads and for public spaces for the public, but JR manages to make his point without beating people over the head with politics. Instead, JR just shows people a better world and makes them smile. I’m not a JR fanatic, but I absolutely love this project.
For the last week or so until today, we’ve been in the process changing Vandalog’s web hosts. No need to get into the technical details, but now the site should run more smoothly and with less downtime. Unfortunately it means that we haven’t been able to write anything new on the site since that process began (everything that’s gone online was pre-scheduled). So this is a mega-link-o-rama combining the usual weekend link-o-rama content with stuff that I could have written about last week even if I’d had the time.
Martha Cooper turned 70 this weekend, and the graffiti community came together at Bowery and Houston to give her a giant surprise birthday present (pictured above). How and Nosm told Cooper that they were planning to repaint their piece at Bowery and Houston and told her to come by at noon on Saturday, but they didn’t tell her how they were going to have to piece repainted. They brought together a bunch of new and old graffiti legends and painted a giant blockbuster tribute to Cooper. BSA has plenty more great photos of the piece in progress and a perfect shot of Cooper reacting to seeing the mural.
WK Interact’s pop-up show in NYC is absolutely fantastic, a must-see show. Think it this way: This show, as I understand it, is a retrospective but it’s made up of the work that WK had in his studio, not work borrowed or on the secondary market from collectors, so this is a lot of unsold work. And yet, the show is still one of the strongest I’ve seen from any artist in quite a while, and the work holds up just fine next to anything else by WK. Even the work that has been sitting in the WK’s studio for a few years is just masterpiece after masterpiece. Good stuff.
Mr. Brainwash has lost another lawsuit by a photographer upset with MBW’s appropriation. Basically, it boils down to MBW’s work being too similar to the original photograph, with no original contributions to the work by MBW.
It appears that Phil Frost hit a massive billboard in LA, and then the billboard was stolen. But the whole thing seems like a shady PR scam for Ace Gallery. Melrose&Fairfax has the full story, but one point they don’t make is that Ace Gallery has a history of controversy, so that makes me even more doubtful that this billboard and its theft are real. Also, let’s face it, there’s a good chance that the billboard is illegal anyway since this was in LA, so who cares if the ad was stolen off of the billboard?