'Women Are Heroes' Project: Street Artist Portrays Feminism in the Areas its Needed Most


“Can art change the world?” French street artist JR asks this question in his 2011 TED Talk. I've watched it at least three times, sent it to friends, and even tried to convince the school I work at that a project such as this would be a great learning experience with a low cost.

In addition to the Inside Out Project, JR now has a book called Women Are Heroes, which consists of a series of portraits alongside each woman’s story. The women are from Brazil, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kenya, India, and Cambodia and their stories range from Shaha Jaham in India who founded an association called the Women's Association Against Dowries to others who have lived through excruciating hardships.

In Maria Popova review of Women Are Heroes: A Global Portrait of Strength in Hardship in Brainpickings, she describes the book as one of JR’s more provocative projects, “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 public space installations in the local communities whose spirit they capture and in glossy galleries around the world.” Additional examples of photos and stories can be seen at Brainpickings.

Their stories range from rape, and children slain before women’s eyes, to extreme domestic abuse and property devastation. Popova describes the stories as, “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 though the stories are not intrinsically hopeful, they contain elements of courage and hope, “that makes these strong women not victims of their circumstances but champions of survival, emotional and psychological …”

As editor Marco Berrebi says in the introduction of the Women Are Heroes, “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.”

JR’s projects, "Women Are Heroes", "Face2Face", and "Inside Out", continue to ask if art can change the world. Using the "Women Are Heroes" project as an example, 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.”

And why the focus on women? As JR told The Guardian: “I was interested in women because I realized in the projects I'd done before – most of the time in the kind of places I was going to – it was men on the street, but it's actually the women who are the ones holding the community together.”

JR focuses on bringing art to “improbable places, as he told Beaux Arts Magazine, in order to “create projects so huge with the community that they are forced to ask themselves questions."

His use of public space underscores his commitment to the people, rather than institutionalized galleries and private spaces. “The city’s the best gallery I could imagine. I would never have to make a book and then present it to a gallery and let them decide if my work was nice enough to show it to people. I would control it directly with the public in the streets,” he says in his 2011 Ted Talk.

“Can art change the world?” JR asks again in his May 2012 talk, a six minute update to his 2011 Talk, “Maybe … we should change the question: Can art change people's lives?” JR illustrates that his art has been changing lives from the inside out for the past year. We’ll have to wait to see how his art continues to evolve, or we'll just have to join the movement and see how art changes our worlds.