JR, the Parisian street artist, was just announced as the recipient of the 2011 TED Prize, which awards $100,000 to those who exemplify the tenets of innovation and creativity the TED Community espouses. TED sought someone "who has a track record for changing the world in innovative ways, who hopefully has mobility and charisma, and who works on a global level," TED Prize director Amy Novogratz tells Fast Company. "And he does all those things." JR, who keeps mum on the real name his initials stand for, joins the ranks of Bill Clinton, E.O. Wilson, and U2's Bono, previous prize recipients.
JR's canvas is the world. The Parisian guerilla artist eschews museums, favoring the crumbling walls of the world's slums to the austere halls of its museums. (Even so, the Tate Modern did give him 100 feet of an external wall, and a 2009 auction of one of his prints fetched over 35 grand). Somewhat in the vein of the British artist Banksy, well known for his politically charged graffiti murals, JR will show up at slum, shantytown, or favela, often braving streets so mean that its children run around in bulletproof jackets. Once there, he enlists a crew of locals and erects enormous black-and-white photographic canvases on the walls, typically human faces or figures that lend a dignified air to a forgotten neighborhood.
How does JR ingratiate himself, when he waltzes into a new ghetto or warzone in his hipster attire? (The image here was taken in Rio's dangerous Morro da Providencia favela.) Making clear that he rejects corporate sponsorship is one technique. But the bottom line, he told The Guardian recently: "Everything is about eye contact."