Living Walls, Living Art

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Last week French artist and photographer JR came to Atlanta to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. As a part of JR’s ongoing project, UNFRAMED, JR installed 3 photo-based environmental artworks in the Old Fourth Ward with the help from his crew and community supporters.

Living Walls, a local non-profit, in partnership with the French Consulate, brings international and local artists to install commissioned wall art. This week, two of the three walls have billboard-sized reproductions of black and white photographs from MARBL’sSouthern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) records. You can find these walls at Hilliard Street and Auburn Ave, Hilliard Street & Edgewood Ave, and the last wall is on Edgewood Ave between Jesse Hill Drive & Piedmont Ave.

When I found out JR was coming to Atlanta, I volunteered with Living Walls to research MARBL’s collections for appropriate imagery. In his project UNFRAMED he uses photographs from archives and installs them somewhere unexpected to change the context. Alongside Monica Campana from Living Walls, I searched through the SCLC archives looking for photographs that would appeal to him — images that would start a conversation, full of historical and contemporary meaning. We came up with approximately 20 photos for JR to choose from. In the end, he chose a personal favorite of mine, an image of a barefoot toddler holding a sign reading I AM A MAN. He also picked Steven Blum’s photograph of the picketers during the Poor Peoples Campaign. The black and white photograph is of three men holding signs, one of which reads: “In this country you can do anything if you try BUT can I live next door to you?”

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The first time I remember seeing JR’s work was about 8 years ago when documentation started surfacing of his WOMEN ARE HEROES project in Brazil and Kenya. I was impressed about the ways in which this young man with roots in graffiti art could make such compelling global works on such a massive scale. A relatively simple idea (technically) was so moving and sophisticated even in its simplicity. For the WOMEN ARE HEROES project, JR traveled to places such as Liberia, India, Cambodia, and Sierra Leone — unpredictable places where women are often victims of conflict, rape, war crimes. He went into these environments and pasted black and white photographs of local women on the sides of buildings, rooftops, staircases, sides of trucks, train cars, and bottoms of empty pools. From these places you encounter everyday women staring back at you, wanting to be seen, wanting to be heard. The images are thoughtfully placed throughout the landscape in an effor to heal. JR’s team continues to travel back each year adding more vinyl images that serve as rooftops in Kenya, even though the project is technically done. A Kenyan woman once told JR that “art can be useful” as it protects her family from the rain.

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All of JR’s projects are courageous, provocative, in your face, and yet meticulously and simply executed. In his ongoing project UNFRAMED he opens up ownership to the viewer by allowing people in the community to participate in the installation and using photographs from local archives & museums such as MARBL. It was a community effort while he was installing I AM A MAN on Edgewood Avenue.  Even my eight and ten year old sons helped with the scaffolding and carrying 5 gallon buckets of wheat paste to the artist. That’s the beauty of his work – it brings people together, MARBL and academia, the creative community, the young and the old as they remember events. One man walking down the street recalled the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike as JR was putting up the wall; he was so excited to tell us his story of when he was also a boy at the time living in Memphis and so happy to stumble across the installation here in Atlanta.

Other notable JR ongoing and past projects and other various collaborations can be explored here:  http://www.jr-art.net/projects

For more information about local non-profit LIVING WALLS:

http://livingwallsatl.com/

All photos courtesy of Paige Knight.