Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Re-Imag(in)ing Informal Settlements

I saw today that J R (no, not me), the French "photograffeur" (he does not like the term "street artist") was awarded the 2011 TED Prize, a $100,000 award for a "wish" of the winner's choice. Past recipients include Bono, Jamie Oliver, and Bill Clinton.

J R pastes huge photographs of local people on buildings, houses, and other surfaces in slums, informal settlements, poor neighborhoods, and other locations, such as on the Palestinian side of an Israeli security fence. In some ways, his work parallels that of Banksy's, another "street artist" (I doubt he would like a label either) who brings humor and attempts to transform (mostly) urban settings with his artwork. Bansky also did an art project on an Israeli security fence and most recently, created his own version of the opener for "The Simpsons." Sometimes I really can't figure out the Fox Network...

Anyway, there is a marked difference between J R and Banksy--while both are anti-commercial and anti-authority/government/establishment/whatever in their own ways, Banksy can be a bit over the top in his commentary ("The Simpsons" opener comes to mind, as hilarious as it was) and seems to support a very specific set of political, social, and cultural views, while I find J R's work open to interpretation. It's simply blown up photographs of local people, often pulling funny faces. It has a more universal, less alienating goal of bringing a sense of lightness and of community: local people are involved, are consulted, are photographed (with consent!), and are the consumers of art outside of a museum, a space that is inaccessible for most of the people with whom J R works.

I first became aware of J R when I read about him in, you guessed it, The New York Times, which did an article on some of his work in Liberia and Sierra Leone, including in Bo, where I volunteered over a year ago. Of course, now I can't find the original article. You can see some of his work in this slideshow, however, and read a bit more about him in this more recent NYT article.

I've never been comfortable with the idea of taking photographs of extremely poor neighborhoods, which I've seen from Mississippi to West Africa to Cape Town to Nairobi. It's similar to the way I feel about township and slum tours--although I do not feel I could access many of these neighborhoods on my own (I'm not comfortable enough with the nuances of South African culture to drive my car into Khayelitsha for a visit on my own, for example), I'm not sure that tours are the way to go, and if I had the chance to take a commercial tour through Soweto or Kibera, I'm not sure whether I'd say yes or no. Although I think it's very important to witness and understand the poverty that exists in our various societies, sticking a camera out the car window isn't always the best way to do it (I've done this and decided not to do it many times and feel very conflicted about it). Showing your friends, family, and others the reality of life for many, many people is important. But anonymous pictures take can take on an aspect of voyeurism, of turning those living in informal settlements and other places into zoo animals. It's a tough issue for me.

What J R does is different. It's interactive and collaborative with local people and communities. It brings awareness and allows anyone to ask questions. It re-imagines and re-images communities. I'm not saying it's the end-all be-all solution for informal settlements and slums, of course. I simply appreciate how J R's work makes me think and how my thoughts of and questions about his work could be entirely different from anyone else who stumbles across it.

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