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JR shines a spotlight on child refugees in first Italian solo show

A striking view of JR's hit Turin show
A striking view of JR's hit Turin show Copyright Andrea Guermani
Copyright Andrea Guermani
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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Turin's branch of Gallerie D'Italia plays host to the celebrated French photographer's exhibition, which runs until next month.

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Superstar French artist JR has paid a visit to his own exhibition at the Gallerie d’Italia in Turin ahead of the acclaimed show’s closure next month.

For this display, which takes up a vast 4,000 square metres of the museum in Piazza San Carlo, JR’s aim was to bring his personal touch to recounting reality and stimulating reflections on social fragility.

Throughout the run of the exhibition - called Déplacé∙e∙s (or Displaced) - JR has involved various local entities with the aim of building more inclusive societies across Europe and the globe.

During a surprise appearance at his first solo show in Italy, JR gave visitors a tour of the galleries and signed copies of his exhibition catalogue, cementing his status as one of the continent’s most renowned artists.

Mauro Ujetto
JR (L) poses with Michele Coppola, Gallerie D'Italia's Executive Director of Art, Culture and Historical Heritage in TurinMauro Ujetto

The director of all four of the Gallerie d'Italia museums Michele Coppola heralded the exhibition, calling JR, “one of the most original international artists who is also attentive to the great social changes”, adding, “The project, which combines street art, photography and video installations, confirms the aim of the Gallerie d'Italia in Turin to stimulate reflection on today's complexities, in line with Intesa Sanpaolo's commitment to sustainable and inclusive growth".

Helping displaced people and vulnerable groups is at the heart of JR’s artistic work and the reason behind this exhibition. The Déplacé∙e∙s project - launched in 2022 and revealed to the public in this show for the first time - saw the artist travel to crisis zones including war-torn Ukraine to refugee camps across the African continent as well as Cucuta in Colombia and Lesvos in Greece. His aim was to better understand the almost intolerable conditions so many people find themselves in in modern society.

Fleeing persecution and poverty

Mauro Ujetto
JR on JR - the photography legend discusses his exhibition in TurinMauro Ujetto

JR explains the staggering size of the worldwide situation, saying, “In 2022, the number of individuals forced to flee their place of residence because of persecutions, wars, violence and human rights violations has exceeded the ominous threshold of 100 million. This emergency is now compounded by food and energy shortages, inflation and climate-related crises”.

The 40-year-old artist, who hails from Paris, also spoke of how crucial it is to respect and help refugees and those rendered homeless by conflicts, famine and climate change: “In many countries of Africa, the Middle East, South America, at the gates of Europe, populations are being forced to abandon their homes to ensure their survival elsewhere. The war in Ukraine has prompted the most abrupt and one of the largest forced exiles since World War II”.

Andrea Guermani
Step inside JR's world - the entrance to the showAndrea Guermani

Speaking of his experience in southern Europe, JR adds, “A symbol of this endless tragedy, the Greek island of Lesbos is the scene of the ebb and flow of migrants arriving by sea as the conflicts develop. This geography of forced relocation constitutes off-limit locations' that are given excess media attention and are invisible at the same time".

His aim with the Turin exhibition is to engage audiences excluded from art and culture and help improve values including freedom, imagination, creativity and collaboration across the globe.

Most striking at the show are JR’s depictions of the children who embody forced migrations, whose faces are blown up on huge banners - giving an identity to individuals who are so often denied the privilege.

During the show’s run the exhibition has become interactive, with one temporary installation taking over the entirety of Piazza San Carlo with five large canvases, depicting images of some of the children he met during his visits to refugee camps; a number of those children were able to make the journey to Turin to see the exhibition for themselves.

Andrea Guermani
JR launching the exhibition earlier this yearAndrea Guermani

JR’s mission was to provide a visual answer to those who rationalise dehumanisation and deny those most in need access to a safe home.

Inviting visitors to consider the world through the eyes of children, he hopes the exhibition will inspire a more reciprocal and hopeful future.

"The camps are not just places of daily life for millions of people, they have become one of the major components of globalisation, one of the forms of organisation in the world: a way to treat those who are unwanted, what we don't want to look in the eye” he says, adding, “My art creates tension between the visible and the invisible to resist the trivialisation of perspectives”.

Andrea Guermani
The eyes have it - JR invites visitors to see the world from children's perspectivesAndrea Guermani

History repeating

He explains how he drew on the work of anthropologist Michel Agier who, a decade ago, deplored the lack of importance given to the status of refugees and the displaced, effectively forever sealing their exclusion from ‘normal’ society. JR took inspiration, too, from late historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt, who famously called the exclusion of refugees a ‘social death’.

Born in the banlieue in Paris to a French father and Tunisian mother, JR has championed the underrepresented since the beginning of his career, more than 20 years ago.

At 17, he began illegally exhibiting his work on Parisian walls in what he called ‘sidewalk gallery exhibitions’.

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From 2004, the photographer created ‘Portraits of a Generation’ which featured images of young people from the housing projects around Paris that he exhibited in huge, but illegal, format. At the time, he explained his approach was inspired by a need to bring art to the average person, saying, “In the street, we reach people who never go to museums".

Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo
JR's work 'Giants' made a huge splash - literally - at the 13th Havana Biennial in 2019Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo

JR’s work - which he says cannot be defined as photography or street art - was soon accepted by traditional galleries and authority figures and he has collaborated with countless museums, including Paris’ iconic Louvre and Centre Pompidou, and in 2016, he was commissioned to create a series of works in Rio de Janeiro during the 2016 Olympics.

At the heart of his creations, JR aims to give a voice to those so frequently ignored, including those affected by the Israel-Palestine conflict and marginalised women across the globe. 

In 2018, in partnership with Time magazine, he produced a cover story featuring over two hundred Americans who had been been impacted by guns and, in 2019, he created an enormous mural photographed from a drone of a group of prisoners in a maximum-security prison in California, in an attempt to humanise people so often written off as monsters or impossible to rehabilitate.

After winning the TED Prize for 2011, JR used the $100,000 (approximately €93,500) award money to start the Inside Out Project. The global art initiative has given thousands of people across the globe the ability to speak to their communities through portraits pasted in public space.

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Getty Images
The eyes of murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier appear on placards created by JR for a 2015 march in ParisGetty Images

Representatives of the initiative have travelled the world - bringing awareness to issues ranging from damage done to the Arctic by corporations during an expedition to the North Pole to JR’s hometown of Paris.

In January 2015, shortly after terrorist attacks in France, the Inside Out team paid tribute to the victims of Charlie Hebdo, printing striking, oversized photos of the eyes of the newspaper's writers and illustrators held up during solidarity marches in Paris and New York.

Catch JR’s latest venture at Gallerie d'Italia in Turin before its close on 16 July 2023.

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