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J.R. in New York: Keeping It Rio

Favela where the French street artist staged "Women Are Heroes" emerges at Ford Foundation's headquarters

J.R.’s mural recreating his famous Rio project on the 11th floor of the Ford Foundation’s sleek Midtown headquarters almost didn’t happen.

This is because the French-born artist and his crew, who have traversed more than 100 countries with their crowd-sourced social-sculpture photo projects, didn’t know what the Ford Foundation was.

A scene from Morro da Providência, a favela in Rio, takes shape as J.R. installs a mural from his “Women Are Heroes series” at the Ford Foundation.


This was solved, says Sol Guy, the artist’s friend and frequent collaborator, when Jane Rosenthal, a downtown fixture and driving force behind the Tribeca Film Festival, stepped in to explain that their missions are not so different—both Inside Out, as J.R.’s global art project is called, and the venerable foundation, founded in 1936 with profits from the Ford Motor Company, are dedicated to supporting social change, freedom of expression, and common understanding.

Thus J.R.’s team was saved from “having the distinction of being so left we can’t be right,” Guy told the crowd that assembled last night to see the mural unveiled.

The evening started with a screening of a film-in-progress chronicling the TED Prize-winning artist’s particular brand of social activism, which involves soliciting photos of the public and printing them as posters. Then he sends the prints back to the communities, where they are posted on public sites and documented. Or, he visits the neighborhoods himself and enlists locals to help him paste the giant portraits en masse in dramatic configurations.

The Ford’s Darren Walker with J.R. and his collaborator Sol Guy.


The film followed J.R. on a recent trip to Tunisia, after the dictator, Ben Ali, had fled; the artist’s idea was to paste over or supplant the tyrant’s image with photos of the public. But even though J.R. worked with local photographers, the crowd wasn’t having it. He didn’t have authorization, they said. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. They demanded the posters come down.

The level of mistrust reflected the absolute nature of the power the previous government had held. It was a country where no one dared write on the walls.

“I feel safe in a city where I see a couple tags here and there,” J.R. told the crowd at a post-screening chat moderated by Darren Walker, who runs the foundation’s Education, Creativity and Free Expression program.

It was a different trip, to a Rio favela called Morro da Providência, that inspired the Ford Foundation piece. When J.R. first arrived there in 2008, the favela was plagued by violence. Here, as he had in Sierra Leona, Sudan, Cambodia, and other troubled sites, he was gathering photos for his “Women Are Heroes” series, driven by the concept that women are the primary victims of war and political or religious fanaticism.

The photos, pasted over the hillside in J.R.’s trademark, almost trompe l’oeil fashion, made it seem like the hills really do have eyes. As the artist recounts in a new book on the “Women,” the spectacle brought media attention to the beleaguered spot, since the press was forced to interview residents to find out what this apparition was. J.R. later returned to teach local youths how to shoot photos of their own, in a cultural center he founded at the top of the hill.

A view of of the mural on its 11th-floor perch.


At the Ford Foundation, a shot of the eerie hillside has been reproduced on a 40-foot–long wall overlooking the internal courtyard, so that the giant, plaintive faces, staring from the shantytown walls, are always in plain view. The closer you get, the harder it is to look away.

This is exactly the effect the foundation’s president, Luis A. Ubiñas, wanted to create for his staff. “It reminds them who we work for,” he said. “We work for those invisible people”– the people the world tries not to see.

The foundation has begun to sell off some earlier acquisitions, like maps, to purchase contemporary works more in line with its philosophy as a philanthropy, Ubiñas says. On the 10th floor conference room, he shows off a luminous Vik Muniz photo recapitulating one of Alighero Boetti’s maps woven by Afgan women. Around the bend are pieces by artists who consider the politics of racial identity, like Carrie Mae Weems and Radcliffe Bailey. There is a shot of a Civil Rights protest, and a photo of the road to Nelson Mandela’s house.

Ubiñas stops beside another significant purchase, a David Wojnarowicz collage. The image evokes the era when the creative class lost so many people to AIDS, he notes. He also sees it as a pointed rejoinder to the recent censorship controversy at the Smithsonian, which removed the artist’s work from a show about gay and lesbian identity. “At the Ford Foundation we don’t censor,” Ubiñas declares.

David Wojnarowicz “Untitled” 1984, acrylic, paper, string collage, recently acquired by the Ford Foundation.


There is an installation of Hank Willis Thomas’s “I Am A Man,” a series of text panels recombining iterations of Martin Luther King’s famous words.

Like J.R.’s hills with eyes, Thomas’s art speaks volumes. “It communicates exactly what we do,” Ubiñas says.

J.R. was not up for speaking with the press at the event, but he did provide some insights into the photo submission process when he was on stage. He noted, for example, that many people send images of themselves with their pets. These he does not use.

So if you want your face to be in “Inside Out,” he revealed, “don’t send me a picture of your dog or your cat.”

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