The French artist JR exhibits freely in the streets of the world, catching the attention of people who are not typical museum visitors. From Paris to the slums of Brazil and the streets of New York, JR is widely recognised for his huge portraits of anonymous people from across the world, from Kibera to Istanbul, Los Angeles to Shanghai.
Born in 1983 in Paris, JR began his practice at age 17 as a graffiti artist. After discovering a camera on the Paris Metro, JR started documenting the process of his street art and that of fellow graffiti artists through his Expo 2 Rue (2001-04) photographic project. He soon transformed the streets of Paris into Sidewalk Galleries, which directed pedestrians through his open-air art exhibitions.
Following Sidewalk Galleries, JR travelled through Europe to meet with and observe other artists interested in public and street art. With a newfound interest in the walls and facades of cities, these interactions inspired JR to begin pasting the portraits of these people across Paris, thus giving birth to his photographic collage practice.
Through his so-called ‘Infiltrating Art’, JR involves communities in his photographic collage practice in which black and white photographs of local people are pasted in an outdoor space. JR’s work engages with a wide range of topics such as media misrepresentation, bias, worker solidarity and gun violence, which directly relate to the anonymous people depicted and the places where their portraits are imaginatively pasted. In incorporating these anonymous local people into his work, JR grounds them as the centre of the discussions posed by his open-air galleries.
In 2011 JR received the TED Prize, after which he launched Inside Out, an international participatory art project that allows people worldwide to get their picture taken and paste it to support an idea and share their experience. As of October 2021, over 420,000 people from more than 138 countries have participated, through mail or gigantic photobooths.
JR’s recent projects include installations for a maximum-security prison in California, the Pantheon in Paris, a container ship, the pyramid of the Louvre, scaffolding at the 2016 Rio Olympics and the US-Mexico border fence. Other notable projects include TIME Magazine covers about COVID and guns in America, a video mural including 1,200 people presented at SFMOMA, a collaboration with New York City Ballet, an Academy Award Nominated feature documentary co-directed with Nouvelle Vague legend Agnès Varda, the monumental mural à la Diego Rivera in the suburbs of Paris, an exhibition in the abandoned hospital of Ellis Island and a social restaurant for homeless and refugees in Paris.
JR continues to remain anonymous, never explaining his huge full-frame portraits of people making faces. In doing so, he leaves the space empty for an encounter between the subject and protagonist, the passer-by and interpreter. That is what JR's work is about, raising questions.