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Posts Tagged ‘art’

24 MAY, 2012

Women Are Heroes: A Global Portrait of Strength in Hardship by French Guerrilla Artist-Activist JR

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Poignant and powerful portraits of physical and emotional survival amidst atrocity.

Last year, French guerrilla street artist JR won the $100,000 TED Prize for his Inside Out project — a global participatory project seeking to inspire civic engagement through art. But JR’s arguably most provocative project dates back to 2008, when he embarked on an ambitious quest to document the dignity of women in conflict zones and violent environments in his mural-sized portraits, exhibited both as lo-fi public space installations in the local communities whose spirit they capture and in glossy galleries around the world — “a project with many images and few words.” Women Are Heroes, a beautiful addition to these 7 favorite books on street art, collects several dozen of JR’s poignant portraits of women from Brazil, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kenya, India, and Cambodia, each accompanied by a moving personal story.

To be sure, this isn’t some fluffy feel-good after-school art project. The stories these women relay — repeated rape, children slain before their eyes, extreme domestic abuse, property devastation — are utterly heart-wrenching. Told in simple, honest words, often tragically matter-of-factly in a way that bespeaks the raw reality these women have had to accept as daily life, they reach for the deepest heartstrings of your empathy and speak to our most unguarded shared humanity. And yet, though at first blush these stories might appear hopeless, wretched, resigned by virtue of their sheer severity, they’re underpinned by the quiet dignity, optimism even, that makes these strong women not victims of their circumstances but champions of survival, emotional and psychological, in the face of odds that make one question how this universe could possibly be benevolent.

Juxtaposed with JR’s stunning portraits — sometimes wistful, often optimistic, always expressive and celebratory of their strong subjects — these women’s stories come to life with remarkable power and respect.

Editor Marco Berrebi observes this parallel in the introduction:

Each of JR’s photographs is an ‘autonomous’ work. It exists through its own aesthetic, with no need to be ‘explained.’ But the narrative gives it its emotional power.

Jessie Jon, Liberia

'I am around ninety years old. I had a happy life. A good husband. I tattooed his initials on my chest. Unfortunately, he died in 1976.

The worst day of my life is still buried deep inside my soul. I had two daughters before the war. But then the war started here and my daughter got pregnant. We started running away. But the belly of my daughter was very big and we had to rest. They asked: 'Is it a girl? Is it a boy?' They opened the belly and took the baby out of the stomach. They threw the baby in the water and they killed my daughter.'

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

Benedita Florencio Monteiro, Brazil

'I'm sixty-eight years old. I was born in Fortaleza, and I wasn't even twenty when I arrived here. I got married, then became a widow after my husband died when I was thirty-five. I've been all alone ever since. I had five children, all of them married.

There was that tragedy when my grandson died. They killed him. He was living with me. He was twenty-four years old. The army was on the square when he came back from the funk dance, and they asked him to lift up his shirt. When he refused, they grabbed him and took him away with two others to the Mineira favela, which is controlled by rival dealers.

They did it out of sheer meanness. He used to go by there every day on his way to school, and everyone here knew him. Everyone who was on the square saw it. They betrayed them for sixty reais. Then they killed them down there. They cut them up in pieces and threw them into the trash bin. They vandalized them. They not only cut them up, but they also shot my grandson in the face five times. He was studying. He was about to get his degree.

I want peace and justice here. My dream is to buy a house somewhere else and leave this place.

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

Ebby Kadenyi, Kenya

'I am fifty years old and am suffering very much with many problems in my life at the moment. I worked as a housemaid for over thirty years, and then three years ago I was fired and have not been able to find any more work. I come from a very large family (my mother had thirteen children, and when you include grandchildren and great-grandchildren, there are around fifty of us), and when I was working I looked after many of my family members, as most of my brothers and sisters are jobless.

I helped to educate four of my siblings because my parents did not have jobs and could not afford to educate us all. One of my brothers now has a good job as a teacher, but sadly he has become a drunkard and has forgotten about his family. If we go to him to ask for help, he just shouts at us and tells us to go away.

I would like to buy my own land so that I can care for my family.'

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

Salete De Franca De Lima, Brazil

'I'm sixty-nine years old. I was born in Manaus and came here when I was a year old. I've lived here my whole life. I have eight children, seven grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. I've got a big family. I wouldn't change this place for anywhere, because I like it here. I grew up here and raised my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

When I was a little girl, it was horrible here, because there was no electricity or water. I used to get up at four in the morning to fetch the water. It was from four to six. There was only water between four and six. So I had to be there at the tap at four o'clock… I'd fill five barrels of water and four buckets.

When I got married, a married woman couldn't work. You had to stay at home. So I made a deal with him that I would never work during my life, but he had to pay me a salary every month. He agreed and still pays me very month. A deal's a deal.'

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

Praveen Mazahar, India

'My problems began after my marriage. My husband beat me because of difficulties over money. He spent his days playing cards and drinking. Then I had children and life became even more difficult. I ran up debts here and there.

I am now working near the dargah, for an association that educates and cares for children. I lost everything, but my trials, every argument with my husband and his brutality, convinced me I was right. Even though he himself was incapable of feeding us, my husband used to tell me every night that I was good for nothing, that as a woman I couldn't do anything. Now I am looking after my children and educating them!

My daughters now know that women, too, can be very independent, that they have the same rights as men. Even if I marry them off, I will not give them a dowry. If they wish to choose their own husbands, I will let them. If they don't want to get married, I will accept that, too.

They can read and write; they are very knowledgeable. At least, we try to be well informed. I say to my girls, 'Learn, learn everything you can, to cope with any situation. You never know what life has in store.'

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

Shaha Jaham, India

'I founded an association that I called the Women's Association Against Dowries. My work enabled me to create a network of acquaintances among associations… My dream was to set up a refuge for women and children, and this dream has come true. We had to teach women who had fled their homes, or had been thrown out, how to live alone, work, and bring up their children.

My work was difficult; I had to fight constantly, among other things against society, the administration, and the police. A woman's life is like a rose: her body is surrounded by thorns. You see the rose, but no one sees the thorns. Even today my struggle continues.

In India, a woman's life is one long struggle. So struggle has become a woman's second nature. All I have endured in the past -- my sons and daughters now have their own families -- but there is one thing I can never forget: my daughter was burned alive. I sometimes think they will kill me, too, because of my militancy, but I am not afraid, because my work with associations has enabled me to regain my self-confidence.

I have brought up my children in a spirit of tolerance. When my son was married, I warned him he must treat his wife with respect, never mention the rape of which she had been the victim, and he accepted this… My granddaughter wanted to choose her own husband, but no one wanted her to. 'Why?' I asked, 'If she wants to marry a boy she loves, let her marry him.' And in a fortnight, I had organized her wedding.

My work brings its rewards every day.'

Image © JR; caption text by Marco Berrebi

The true power of JR’s project, however, lies not in the lavish, enormous, beautiful Women Are Heroes tome but in the impact his work is having on the very communities from whence it is sourced. The Guardian recounts the story of one onlooker in Monrovia, who didn’t know what an art exhibition was and received the following explanation from another:

You have been here for a moment looking at the portraits, asking questions, trying to understand. During that time, you haven’t thought about what you will eat tomorrow. This is art.

Images © JR courtesy of Abrams Books

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22 MAY, 2012

Advice on Living the Creative Life from Neil Gaiman

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“Someone on the internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid, or evil, or it’s all been done before? Make good art.”

On the heels of last week’s timeless commencement addresses by icons like David Foster Wallace, Ellen DeGeneres, and Ray Bradbury comes this fantastic speech by Neil Gaiman, addressing the 2012 graduating class of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. (Which happens to be the technical birthplace of Brain Pickings as we know it today — it’s there that I took my first web design night class in the early 1800s and transformed what began as a tiny email newsletter into a tiny website.) Gaiman himself never graduated from college — in fact, he never even enrolled in college — yet he earned his place in literary culture as one of the most celebrated and prolific writers working today. Here, he imparts several pieces of life-wisdom on young people beginning a career in the arts, summarized below.

  1. Say “no” to projects that take you further from rather than closer to your own creative goals, however flattering or lucrative. (Hugh MacLeod put it beautifully: “The most important thing a creative per­son can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not.”)
  2. Approach your creative labor with joy, or else it becomes work. (As Ray Bradbury said, “Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it.”)
  3. I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work — which meant that life did not feel like work.

  4. Embrace your fear of failure. Make peace with the impostor syndrome that comes with success. Don’t be afraid of being wrong.
  5. When things get tough, make good art.
  6. Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong — and in life, and in love, and in business, and in friendship, and in health, and in all the other ways in which life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Someone on the internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid, or evil, or it’s all been done before? Make good art.

  7. Make your art, tell your story, find your voice — even if you begin by copying others.
  8. You can get work because of the story you tell about yourself, even if it means embellishing, but you keep working because you’re good.
  9. Enjoy your work and your small victories; don’t get swept up into the next thing before being fully present with the joys of this one.
  10. This is an era in which the creative landscape is in constant flux. The rules are being broken down, the gatekeepers are being replaced and displaced. Now is the time to make up your own rules.

Gaiman sums it all up thusly:

Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make. Good. Art.

Open Culture; top image by Kimberly Butler

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22 MAY, 2012

Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See

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The art-science of walking the fine line between keen and crass.

Since its inception in 1925, The New Yorker has garnered remarkable reverence as much for its editorial style as it has for its inimitable covers, a singular medium for political and sociocultural visual satire matched perhaps only by Al Jaffee’s legendary MAD magazine fold-ins. In Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See, Françoise Mouly, New Yorker art director of nearly two decades, offers exactly what it says on the tin — a delicious forbidden taste of the art that didn’t quite nail it, or nailed it a bit too hard.

From Monica Lewinsky with a lollipop to Osama Bin Laden appraising proposed designs for the new World Trade Center, the images come from a slew of beloved New Yorker regulars, including Brain Pickings favorites Christoph Niemann, R. Crumb, and Art Spiegelman (who happens to be Mouly’s partner), and explore — some might say, exploit — our most deep-seated cultural conceits, our grandest fears, our most irrational beliefs, and our greatest unspoken truths. What emerges is a fascinating and unprecedented glimpse of the creative process behind the art of walking the fine line between the humorous and the haughty, the keen and the crass, the unapologetic and the too unapologetic.

Before arriving at the right character set to poke fun at our fears of terrorism -- two Arab men -- Barry Blitt tried the idea with two children and two businessmen. Ultimately, the idea was scrapped -- the reference to the mild DIY explosive, despite the viral fame of the Mentos + Diet Coke mixing experiments, was deemed too obscure for the magazine's audience.

Art Spiegelman winked at Norman Rockwell's 'Freedom from Want' to comment on anti-Muslim violence.

Immediately preceding the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christoph Niemann captured the anti-French sentiments sweeping America.

After Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was assaulted by white NYPD officers in 1997, Harry Bliss zeroed in on then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani's semi-secret paranoia.

Though Art Spiegelman didn't make the cover cut with this 1993 sketch, he and Mouly made it into the family's Christmas card that year.

Much of what makes the book special — and, no doubt, what makes New Yorker covers sing — is Mouly’s relationship with the artists, whom she consistently encourages not to self-sensor or hold anything back. There emerges a kind of “fail better” mentality, underpinned by her conviction that even the most outrageous idea may serve as a gateway to an inspired, publishable line of thinking.

The book’s companion site offers a weekly cover contest, the entries to which have been surprisingly excellent. My favorite, by writer and illustrator Ella German, came last week, themed “The Gays,” in light of the recent historic moment for marriage equality, but also referencing Maurice Sendak, who had passed away the previous week. Though far from a gay rights activist, Sendak lived as an openly gay man with his partner of half a century. The two never had the opportunity to marry.

What Here At The New Yorker did for the magazine’s editorial voice on its 50th anniversary in 1975, Blown Covers has done for its brand of visual satire, offering a rare glimpse of Oz behind the curtain. And to those whose first blush might be that Oz is better off unseen and omnipotent, Mouly offers the following lens in this interview on Imprint:

One could have to do with demystifying, making the process more predictable. But I actually think that it’s so rich and so interesting that it’s actually even more interesting if you have a sense of how the images are thought about, rather than less. It doesn’t explain anything because it still is genius when somebody gets the right idea.

Images courtesy of Abrams Books

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