WOMEN ARE HEROES: A Global Portrait of Strength in Hardship by French Guerrilla Artist-Activist JR
by Maria Popova
Poignant and powerful portraits of physical and emotional survival amidst atrocity.
In 2012, French guerrilla street artist JR won the $100,000 TED Prize for his Inside Out project — a global participatory project seeking to inspire civic engagement through art. But JR’s arguably most provocative project dates back to 2008, when he embarked on an ambitious quest to document the dignity of women in conflict zones and violent environments in his mural-sized portraits, exhibited both as lo-fi public space installations in the local communities whose spirit they capture and in glossy galleries around the world — “a project with many images and few words.” Women Are Heroes, a beautiful addition to these 7 favorite books on street art, collects several dozen of JR’s poignant portraits of women from Brazil, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kenya, India, and Cambodia, each accompanied by a moving personal story.
To be sure, this isn’t some fluffy feel-good after-school art project. The stories these women relay — repeated rape, children slain before their eyes, extreme domestic abuse, property devastation — are utterly heart-wrenching. Told in simple, honest words, often tragically matter-of-factly in a way that bespeaks the raw reality these women have had to accept as daily life, they reach for the deepest heartstrings of your empathy and speak to our most unguarded shared humanity. And yet, though at first blush these stories might appear hopeless, wretched, resigned by virtue of their sheer severity, they’re underpinned by the quiet dignity, optimism even, that makes these strong women not victims of their circumstances but champions of survival, emotional and psychological, in the face of odds that make one question how this universe could possibly be benevolent.
Juxtaposed with JR’s stunning portraits — sometimes wistful, often optimistic, always expressive and celebratory of their strong subjects — these women’s stories come to life with remarkable power and respect.
Marco Berrebi observes this parallel in the introduction:
“Each of JR’s photographs is an ‘autonomous’ work. It exists through its own aesthetic, with no need to be ‘explained.’ But the narrative gives it its emotional power.“
The true power of JR’s project, however, lies not in the lavish, enormous, beautiful Women Are Heroes tome but in the impact his work is having on the very communities from whence it is sourced. The Guardian recounts the story of one onlooker in Monrovia, who didn’t know what an art exhibition was and received the following explanation from another:
“You have been here for a moment looking at the portraits, asking questions, trying to understand. During that time, you haven’t thought about what you will eat tomorrow. This is art.”
Images © JR courtesy of Abrams Books