Who is Stealing and Auctioning Off JR Artwork for Charity ?

Art News

November 5, 2015

Hm, this is a tough one. Say, you live in a slum. You are fighting for your life, and for lives of your family members, not day by day, but hour by hour. You don't have running water, you don't have food, you live in the worst possible conditions that could be seen on the face of the Earth. Everywhere around you people are getting beaten up or killed. The poverty is unimaginable. And then, all of the sudden, there are some people that come and want to take your roof, or let's pretend that is roof. They also say they'll give you a new, tin roof, instead of some illustrated cover that someone else has brought to you years ago. Those people are also saying that this is for your own good, and that they will provide some running water for your settlement. But, you have learned long time ago not to trust anyone, let alone some foreigners that you see for the first time. What would you do in a situation like that?

JR artwork charity
JR's work in Kenya

Artwork or Tin-Roof, That is the Question

This is the situation people from Kibera in Kenya faced just recently. People from nonprofit organization Water Is Life launched a campaign to proved clean drinking water to the "Africa's largest and most dangerous slum". And they'll raise funds for this by taking (stealing?) artworks that famous French street artist JR had left for people of Kibera. Back in 2008 and 2009, JR had created a series of street installations in Africa - something he had done in Cambodia, Brazil and India, as well. These huge installations were depicting African women, in order to raise awareness of incredibly hard conditions, obstacles and violence African women are facing during their lives. Some of those installations were put on people's houses - let's pretend those are houses - and apart from being artworks, these installations served as a protection from the sun and the rain, as well. Until now. Organization Water Is Life figured out that these JR's rooftop murals are worth a lot - much more than some regular tin-roofs - and that it is a shame that such fortune stays and decays on Kenyan sun, while the inhabitants of Kibera slum don't have running water, as well as they don't have a clue what is the value of those drawings above their heads.

JR artwork charity
JR's work in Kenya

"Taking From the Poor to Give to the Poor"

So, they have organized replacement of JR's murals with a regular tin-roof. They have estimated that JR's murals are worth around $400,000 and decided to put these murals on auction, in order to provide the inhabitants of Kibera slum some running water. The first JR's artwork was already sold at at Julien’s Auction House in Beverly Hills in September, while another one will be put on sale in Paris soon. According to statements from Water Is Life organization, their work could be described as "a mission to take from the poor to give to the poor". All in all, they are aiming at installation of a water filter that could clean up to 5,000 gallons per day, building a permanent community hand-washing station as well as 40 hand-washing outlets for 4,000 school children, rehabilitation of the water distribution apparatus and a training program and school curriculum about hygiene.

Should Have They Done That?

However, this raises an enormous amount of questions. Let us be benevolent this time and take for granted that Water Is Life will do what they are claiming, not taking a cent from the money gathered at auctions: let's say that everything they collect from auctions will end up as a much needed help for people of Kibera. Even so, this is a highly questionable venture. First of all, who are people from Water Is Life to decide what is best for people of Kibera? Yes, running water is conditio sine qua non - not for a normal life, but for life at all. Giving people a running water is a praiseworthy thing to do. Yet, we don't know if that's what they need the most. Perhaps they need something else even more badly? What if, say, I decide that they need better houses, and go and take JR's murals, sell them and then build new houses for people of Kibera - and, incidentally, the whole job has been entrusted to my friend who is engaged in construction? Second, whose property people from Water Is Life are selling? Did they receive something as a proof that these murals could be put on sale at all? Words "stolen" and "steal" are often popping up in the whole story Water Is Life is telling us. Are they selling stolen art? There are many things that we don't know right now, and without those information the whole story seems fishy - first things that we would like to hear is what people of Kibera have to say about this (which we won't), and what JR has to say about this.

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Images courtesy of JR.

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