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Art on the border

  • Written by  Lottie Watters
  • Published in Cultures
Art on the border
21 Feb
Influencing international peace through street art

Throughout his election campaign, and at regular points since taking office, US president Donald Trump, has been championing the need for an ‘impassable physical barrier’ to be built along the US-Mexico border. Additionally, orders to bring an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme that protects undocumented child migrants from deportation, have furthered his position on just what type of person Trump wants to exist inside US borders.

Reactions to the president’s plans have been widespread and many are outraged, considering them to be racist and/or xenophobic. While protests, accusations and horrified reactions fill the news on a regular basis, one unlikely and positive outcome came in the form of street art.

In the same week that the end of the DACA programme was announced, the TED Prize-winning and anonymous street artist, ‘JR’, took to the existing border fence between the Mexico and southern California in an attempt to promote peace and understanding through art. French-born, JR began the 70ft-tall installation of an enlarged one-year-old child’s photograph, Kikito, curiously peering over the wall from the Mexican side into the USA. He appears to grip the wall as he looks down and his innocence and inquisitiveness is designed to make the viewer smile and represents a much softer and humane side to the border debate, so often forgotten about in politics and media outlets.

In an interview with The New Yorker, JR described how Kikito’s mother agreed to let him use the photograph of her son. She explained, ‘I hope this will help people see us differently to what they hear in the media, that they will stop taking about us like criminals or rapists… I hope in that image they won’t only see my kid. They will see us all.’

Border picnic

The installation was positioned on the Mexican side of the wall, close to the family’s home on some empty land in Tecate town, just 40 miles south of San Diego. The reactions it provoked certainly fulfilled his mother’s wish with people travelling vast distances to visit the work and post their appraisal across the internet. The public’s response to the artwork on both sides of the wall evidenced how so many civilians do not share the intolerant attitude towards their neighbours that much of the government does. Thousands of people from both sides of the border visited the installation over the past month as it made headlines across the US.

On the final day of the exhibition, JR organised an extravagant ‘forbidden’ picnic spanning both sides of the border. The picnic bench had the eyes of a Mexican woman JR referred to as ‘the Dreamer’ pasted onto it (undocumented young migrants that were brought to US as children have been termed ‘dreamers’), making for some dynamic aerial shots. JR posted photos and videos of hundreds of Americans, Mexicans and people of many other nationalities sharing drinks and food, passing them to one another through the fence that is intended to divide them. There was also a band playing live music whose members were split half-and-half on either side of the border.

West Bank wall

This is not the first time JR has taken his art work to a controversial border wall with the aim of promoting peace between neighbouring nations. A decade ago, the artist took to the streets in one of the most renowned and dangerously divided places on Earth: the West Bank Wall.

Following the much-debated construction of the West Bank Wall by the Israeli government in 2002, the street artist visited cities and people on both sides of the barrier in order to understand the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. On his website he explained how he quickly came to the realisation that the people living on either side of the wall were extremely similar, leading parallel lives. They are described as ’twin brothers raised in different families’ – each person on the Palestinian side had his ‘twin’ doing the same job, leading a very similar life on the Israeli side.

This led to what became the largest illegal photography exhibition in the world. The artist took black-and-white portraits of the so-called ‘twins’ from either side, pulling silly faces for the camera. The amusing and heart-warming images were then blown-up to larger than life-size and pasted side-by-side along the wall in eight different cities, including Jerusalem. The idea was to show the populations on both sides that they are not so different from one-another. By displaying them ‘face to face’ as real people, JR’s team hoped to ‘contribute to a better understanding between Israelis and Palestinians’, according to a statement by the artist.

Overall, reactions to the project were positive and, in his TED Talk, JR describes a moment when Palestinians approached him while he was pasting the pictures in Ramallah and how they were unable to decipher between which of the two taxi drivers photographed was Palestinian and which was Israeli. Four years later the images were still up which JR takes to mean the success of the project speaks for itself: considering they were only pasted on with paper and glue, if people were opposed to them they are easy to remove. With unwavering optimism, the artist also wrote: ‘Today, Face2Face is necessary. Within a few years, we will come back for Hand in Hand.’

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