JR's art installation sits on the Eastern edge of the city of Tecate, Mexico. Photo by Scott Bennett
By Scott Bennett
The French artist JR recently completed a large-scale public art installation of a young boy that appears to be pulling himself up over the U.S.-Mexico border wall. The project is located on the eastern edge of the city of Tecate, Mexico—about one hour east of San Diego.
JR’s team wheat-pasted the photograph of David Enrique, also known as “Kikito,” on the same day that the Trump administration rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program. Although this political connection was not planned, because of the timing, the art project raises questions concerning immigration and the border wall. Given this, it’s worthwhile to consider some of JR’s projects from around the world to delve deeper into reading this timely installation.
Considered a street artist, photographer, and activist, many of JR’s projects have focused on immigration, identity, and the human condition. He has organized installations in such diverse places as Brazil, India, Kenya, and Israel, among others. JR has a distinct style, a type of guerrilla-art pasting aesthetic with black and white photos or other materials such as tarps.
After winning the Ted Prize in 2011, JR vowed to “change the world through art” by calling upon people all over the world to participate in an Inside Out project by providing the printing for poster-size black and white portraits. Groups or individuals would then paste the portraits in their own communities to raise awareness and humanize various people groups. Some of the best examples of this can be found in JR’s first retrospective book titled JR: Can Art Change the World?
(Left) JR's art installation in process at the Eastern edge of the city of Tecate, Mexico. (RIght) The wall at sunset. August 26, 2017.
Photo by Scott Bennett
The liminal space of the borderlands adds to the mystique of the Tecate project since it is JR’s first large-scale project in Mexico. As the emphasis on Trump’s plans for a border wall gain notoriety in both the press and political rhetoric, JR’s timing for a large-scale pasting seems eerily pertinent as a response to the conversations concerning not only immigrants and refugees but to the questionable future of the “dreamers,” or DACA recipients.
What better way to challenge these issues than with a one-year-old innocent toddler who can seemingly cross the border fence with ease? JR’s New York studio manager, Marc Azoulay, clarified that the photograph of Kikito was shot while the boy pulled himself up out of his crib. In many ways, for Kikito, crossing the wall at the U.S.-Mexico border is as easy as climbing out of his crib. “For this little kid, there are no walls or borders,” said JR to The New York Times earlier this month.
It is significant that the one-year-old-boy Kikito is actually from the neighborhood near the installation, where JR and his team met him and his mother during a scouting trip during May 2017. JR and his team mentioned that they had met Kikito’s mom and discovered that she was a fan of JR’s on Facebook. The immediacy and local nature of the project not only shows respect to the boy and his family, but also acknowledges the importance of life in the neighborhood, as a tribute to the people that call the area home. It is also key to point out that JR and his team did not work alone: Pedro Alonzo curated this large-scale artwork, and has collaborated with JR on other projects, including "Viva la Revolución: A Dialogue with the Urban Landscape" in 2010 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. He also curated JR’s first solo museum exhibition in the USA at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, in 2013.
As a San Diego resident, I was fortunate to learn about the current border project through Marc Azoulay before it began. Plus, I recently conducted a workshop at Casa Amarela in Rio de Janeiro, where JR has a strong presence, which led to connecting with the street artist's team. After completing the pasting project Women Are Heroes in the neighborhood of Morro da Providência in Rio, in 2009 JR donated Casa Amarela, or Yellow House, as a community center for youth in the favela. The workshop that I led consisted of teaching photography to youth through the non-profit 100cameras, which collaborated with JR’s non-profit, the Cofondation. When I heard about the pasting of the toddler at the border, I decided to document and photograph the installation of the project from start to completion.
According to the previously quoted New York Times article, JR’s idea for the oeuvre in Tecate came from a dream. It appears that his purpose is to raise awareness about immigration and to challenge the rhetoric of building walls and stopping immigrants from coming to or entering the United States. Or quite simply: it is through the innocence of an adorable one-year-old Mexican child that the world should be open to welcoming others, and that walls can be broken down and crossed as easily as a baby can pull himself up out of a crib. Art really changes the world and the Kikito project is a testament to JR’s vision, creativity, and most of all, a clear example of how he and his team will continue to go against the grain by challenging dehumanizing rhetoric one pasting at a time.
A border patrol agent stands in front of JR’s installation at the U.S-Mexico border. September 6, 2017.
Photo by Scott Bennett