Inside Out

Artist: JR
Global, multiple locations, including Ecuador, Nepal, Palestine, and Mexico
Year of completion: 2011

Researcher: Leon Tan

JR is an anonymous artist who came to international attention for large-scale street art works in Paris, Israel, and Palestine. He received the TED Prize in 2011, enabling him to launch Inside Out, an international project engaging individuals from diverse communities worldwide in creating street art wheat-pastes in their localities. The artist has consistently worked with faces, and Inside Out is no different in this respect. People were invited to share their lives, stories, concerns, and passions through self-composed photographs showing their faces. In the words of the artist, “The concept of the project is to give everyone the opportunity to share their portrait and a statement of what they stand for, with the world.”

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As an international project, Inside Out functioned on the basis of portrait photographs submitted online through the Inside Out website. The digital images were printed by the Inside Out team and shipped back to participants, who pasted the posters in sites of their own choosing. The artist also installed photo-booths equipped with printers in public spaces, museums, and galleries, enabling people in the vicinity of these booths to participate spontaneously. Finally, the project website served, and continues to serve, as a public archive and exhibition of all the submitted works, together with on-site documentary material.

Of the many international examples of Inside Out, a couple stood out, which are worth specific mention: “Educating India” and “The Celebration of the Real Afghanistan.” The first consisted of photographs of children holding up little blackboards noting their professional ambitions, e.g. doctor, policeman, math teacher. The large format posters pasted on the street served as a reminder of the importance of education in the subcontinent. The images of girls with professional ambitions were particularly significant, given the fiercely patriarchal culture of India and the difficulties women face in pursuing professional careers.

“The Celebration of the Real Afghanistan” took place in the old city of Kabul, and featured portraits of everyday Afghanis in order to contrast these depictions of Afghanistan with the ones propagated by mainstream media and political leaders. Many of the images reminded street and online audiences that hope and laughter could exist in spite of tremendous hardships and political turmoil. Conceivably, the project helped to humanize perceptions of Afghanistan, allowing its people to be seen in their wholeness, and not just as terrorists, opium cultivators and traffickers or victims needing international aid handouts.

If numbers were anything to go by, it would seem that Inside Out was a highly successful public art project. According to the artist, over 140,000 people from 10,000 cities have participated in Inside Out in the two years following its launch in 2011. The artist has been featured on influential platforms such as TED and TEDx, while a film on the project premiered in 2013 at Tribeca Film Festival. The project is commendable for the way in which it activated communities by encouraging participation, while affording a high degree of autonomy to local street art actions. It does, however, have a contentious dimension, insofar as street art actions are considered illegal in some countries. On the one hand, it may be seen as an enabler of crime, and on the other, a facilitator of community reclamation of public spaces.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency