Introducing JR: the “French Banksy”

JR (Jean-René) is a French photographer who considers himself to be the mastermind behind “the largest gallery in the world”. Beginning his career pasting images illegally around Paris, JR has redefined the image of street art. Currently, his work is being exhibited in Kunsthalle München, under the title JR: Chronicles. This exhibition takes visitors chronologically through JR’s different projects, beginning with 28 Millimetres and The Portrait of a Generation.

For JR’s first project in 2004, he used a 28 millimetre camera which he allegedly found on the Paris metro. The artist went from being considered a vandal and graffitiing walls to photographing young members of the ‘ghetto’ of Montfermeil. This suburb of Paris was portrayed in the media in a particularly negative light following the 2005 riots. Inhabitants, who were mostly teenagers and young adults, were depicted as violent and aggressive. With the aim of giving these inhabitants a voice, JR began the creation of his public murals. He constructed ‘sidewalk gallery exhibitions’ which would sometimes barely last the day before Parisian authorities would remove them.

The exhibition covers fifteen years of work, spanning from 2004 up to today. Every one of his projects are ever relevant due to the work being so politically charged. It is striking when seeing the scale of his work. In his 2007 project, Face 2 Face, JR and Marco photographed Israelis and Palestinians in the same profession. They would paste these images of people’s faces on both sides of the walls that divided Palestinian and Israeli cities. There were videos of JR talking to local people who were curious about these large scale images that were pasted on the walls. JR would ask locals to guess which person in the photographs were Palestinian and Israeli, engendering a discussion around the idea of misconception. Concisely put in an interview with The Talks, JR states that his ‘art is political just by the fact that it’s in the street.’

Walking around the Kunsthalle, from project to project, you start to understand the extent of JR’s work. Every project focuses on another misrepresented, diverse group of society. JR has assembled images of his work all around the globe. With Women are Heroes, JR travelled to eight different countries between 2008 and 2014 to convey the strength and importance of women in society, despite being the main victims of political and religious extremism. JR has gone on to give voices to many other sectors of society; from The Wrinkles of the City which addresses an aging population, to Tehachapi which presents the inmates of a Californian detention centre in a non-judgemental and positive light. And the list goes on.

Each section of the exhibition has a QR code you can scan that takes visitors to a video. In every video, JR explains in detail decisions behind his work, and anecdotes that contextualise his experiences. Complex murals, such as his New York City mural which included 1,128 New Yorkers, are broken down in his videos. His art becomes a Where’s Wally book, where visitors can find more stories and links between his subjects the longer they look.

So, why is JR referred to as the “French Banksy”? Most likely it is due to the fact that both artists work under a pseudonym. However, they also both construct their public exhibitions in a guerrilla-like manner. Although his work has been linked to that of Banksy’s, JR is a pioneering artist in his own right. He won the TED prize in 2011 for his internationally-recognised work. Having once been fined by the Mayor of Paris for his vandalism as a teenager, JR was included in the Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2018. He has given a voice to those unheard and continues to take ground-breaking images to then share on a global scale.

JR: Chronicles is currently on tour, having previously been displayed in the Brooklyn Museum (New York), the Saatchi Gallery (London) and the Groninger Museum (Netherlands).

Featured image: Alexander Andrews via Unsplash with license.

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