US advertising agency Deutsch has removed the Women are Heroes prints from the roofs of the Kibera slum in Nairobi and sold them off, donating the proceeds to aid projects in what they are describing as an ‘art heist for good’. However, their removal has caused some disquiet in the Nairobi slum and from the artist himself.
In 2009, French artist JR photographed local women in Nairobi’s largest slum, printed these images on vinyl-covered tarpaulins and attached them to the roofs of shacks in the slum itself as part of the artist’s Women Are Heroes project.
They had a dual purpose; paying tribute to the maligned role women play in society but also waterproofing the homes they covered.
After this initial installation, JR formed a foundation which continues to add new tarpaulins to uncovered houses in Kibera to this day.
Four years later, in 2013, a team from US advertising agency, visited Nairobi where they took the opportunity to admire JR’s work.
Julia Neumann, the project’s creative director said that when they found the artwork, it was “impressive but deteriorating”. She claims some of the tarpaulins were torn, discarded or were being reused as floor coverings while others had simply weathered away.
Along with her colleagues, Neumann decided to remove the tarpaulins they felt could be safely salvaged and take them to the west to auction, with the proceeds used to fund Water of Life’s Kenyan operations.
Working with local representatives, they replaced the vinyl coverings with new, metal roofing, but they failed to get either the consent of the artist, JR nor the women in the photos. Defending this failure to get any form of consent, Neumann claims the did try, but the women were hard to locate and JR declined to respond to their attempts to contact him.
Proving the pieces were original work was difficult to prove without JR’s authentication, but at Los Angeles based Julien’s Auction, better known for dealing in celebrity memorabilia, the initial lot comprising of a 324-by-264-inch tarpaulin print of a woman’s eye, was auctioned off in September. The sale generated $10,000 for the water charity, but this was far less than the millions they hoped to raise.
However, whether it was a JR original or not is disputed, with the artist himself telling the Guardian newspaper that he didn’t recognise it. He believes it was a later print, continuing his 2009 work, by a young unknown Kenyan.
The French artist has also said that the monetising of his work could lead him to pull out of the scheme altogether and is critical of the amount raised by the sale, describing it as “interesting but highly inefficient”.
“You have an NGO investing tons of their benefactors’ money to sell a piece at a small auction house for $10,000?” he said.
“Kibera is a sensitive place where violent riots took place a few years ago. When the NGO and their advertising agency explain that the people there have a million dollars’ worth of art pieces above their heads and that it is OK to take it and sell it, they take the risk to start a war.” – JR
Paul Currion is a humanitarian consultant who also shares JR’s misgivings about the so-called ‘art heist for good’. He visited Kibera in May, and he remains critical of this scheme.
“My main objection is that it’s appropriating a community resource to raise money that goes into the bank account of a private organisation, rather than the pockets of the community themselves. “The argument usually goes like this. One: the locals aren’t maximising the value of the resources they’re sitting on because they don’t know any better. Two: the outsiders negotiate an agreement which they claim will indirectly benefit the locals but in fact directly benefits the outsiders’ own interests. Three: the community resource is appropriated and replaced with whatever the outsiders decide is in the best interests of the locals.” – Humanitarian consultant, Paul Currion
However, the scheme to sell art from slums to fund sanitation projects is not without its supporters.
Praise has come from Adweek, Creative Review and the Huffington Post and in an accompanying video for the Deutsch agency’s campaign, mounted on behalf of the NGO Water Is Life, a narrator claims that “there are millions of dollars’ worth of unguarded art, in one of the worst places in the world. I’m gonna take it, sell it to the highest bidder, and then use the money for good.”
Regardless of the critics, Neumann says the scheme is set to continue. “I hope the future holds a lot of money,” she says. “I think the community can benefit from what we’re doing. It didn’t feel like they cared about the art. They have nowhere to pee, they don’t know where food is coming from. That’s their problems.”
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