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

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


Published May 24, 2012

https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/05/24/women-are-heroes-jr-book/

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