​The tribute from an artist - Women are heroes

2017-10-02 L’Osservatore Romano

jr are the initials of the French photographer Jean René, chosen as his professional name. In 2011 he won the ted (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Prize, made available by a nonprofit organization for people able to dream up global changes. In claiming his prize, jr announced that he would use the prize of money which ted was making available to the winner to advance his artistic plans.

The idea at the root of jr’s plans is to enable people who live on the outskirts of cities (the lowliest) to “put their faces” to a dream in which they believe. jr began his career as a street artist in the suburbs of Paris, where his works were considered to be vandalism. Now that he has achieved a discreet success, he has chosen to ensure that his production helps people to change their destinies, and as a great visionary he believes that art can do this.

In his project Women are Heroes jr has brought out stories of women from across the world – Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kenya, Brazil, India, Cambodia – who are fighting for a more human present and a better future for their children.He has filmed and listened to women who are fighting for basic essentials in the shanty towns of Brazil, women in the refugee camps of Africa and those in Cambodia who are fighting against the demolition of their homes to make way for luxury districts in cities undergoing expansion.What all these women have in common is their tenacity to fight for simple but fundamental things that will change that small part of the world which has been entrusted to them and for whose present and future they feel responsible.

After listening to the stories of these women and having chosen some as subjects for his photographs, jr transforms their faces, and in particular their eyes, into gigantic posters stuck on to the façades of the dilapidated houses in the shanty towns or on houses that are to be demolished in Cambodia.These faces call all those who meet their gaze to relate to them and bring the stories of these women out of an anonymity that would have annulled them.

jr’s work is made of paper, it is as fragile as the houses or roads where these posters are affixed and once time has discoloured them these faces will return to their daily lives, to the place where they continue to fight tenaciously.

jr turned the images of the women he met in Kenya into large plastic canvases for them which now serve as roofs for their houses made of metal sheets. Seen from above they are so many gazes that demand attention.

jr thus describes the last act of this project which took place in the port of Le Havre: “On 5 July 2014 a ship that was 363 metres long left the port of Le Havre in France to cross the world to reach Malaysia. Two thousand six hundred strips of paper were stuck on the containers in only 10 days with the help of the port workers. In 2007 the project Women are Heroes was created to pay homage to those who play an essential role in society but who are the primary victims of wars, of crime, of rapes or of political and religious fanaticism. Portraits and eyes of women were stuck on to a train in Kenya, on to the façades of the shacks in a Brazilian slum, on to a house demolished in Cambodia: these women gave the artist their trust and asked only that he fulfil one promise: “make sure that my story travels with you”.This was done by putting their eyes on bridges in Paris, on the walls of Phnom Penh and on buildings in New York…”.

The project Women are Heroes ends with a ship leaving a port with an enormous image that after a few moments becomes microscopic. By contrast these women remain in their villages and face difficulties in regions torn apart by wars and poverty, and on the other side of the infinite ocean. We have no idea what is in the containers on the ship: the belongings of people who are leaving a country to build a different life in another region, goods that will be transformed, worn out and used up in a different country.We have no idea where and how people will see this work of art but we are sure that in looking at it some far-away women will feel moved.

We too should feel more moved when we meet the gaze of the women who mark our lives, without us having to travel far to seek them, in order to discover how hard they fight every day, perhaps even a little for us too. If we know how to look at them and listen to them, as Jesus did with the Canaanite woman and the Syrophoenician woman, we will find not only that they are heroes but also that they are capable of a truly great faith and hope in life. We too will discover the miracle of an encounter made with a simple look. 

Bro Elia of Bose