An art installation by French street artist JR has been involved in the sea rescue of African migrants, the Wall Street Journal reported. When the street artist launched a 1,200-foot container ship this summer bearing an enormous photograph, little did he realise that the crew would end up saving refugees at sea.
JR pasted a giant photo on shipping containers and dispatched the picture of the eyes of a Kenyan woman as part of the artist’s “Women Are Heroes” series on a far-flung voyage this summer. In fact the vessel named the Magellan and operated by French shipper CMA CGM, carried thousands of containers pasted with the picture in sections.
Authorities contacted the vessel and asked the crew to rescue 213 refugees aboard a fishing boat that was drifting from Libya toward Greek shores, as the cargo ship was heading home from Malaysia after unloading the containers in Asia, said a spokesman for the shipping company.
The artist told WSJ, “I was starting an art project on immigrants and another artwork of mine was already connecting with it in the middle of the ocean.” He added, “I will do something on undocumented immigrants; I still don’t know exactly how.”
The crew of the Magellan cared for the 213 refugees for two days, feeding them, and even giving up their cabins to the women and children. before handing them over to Italian authorities in the port of Taranto.
The street artist’s artwork involved wrapping more than 150 containers with sections of the black-and-white photo, setting out from Le Havre in July. In a strange coincidence the sea rescue has an uncanny resonance with JR’s latest work: An exhibit of old photos pasted to abandoned buildings on New York’s Ellis Island, which was, of course, the gateway for 12 million immigrants to the U.S. between the late 19th century and its closure in 1954.
After JR worked with archives on immigration for the Ellis Island work – and thought about his own family’s experience – as his parents left Tunisia and Eastern Europe and settled in France – the French street artist became interested in the plight of modern immigrants.
“The stories you hear from the people in Sicily are similar to the testimonies in the archives at Ellis Island,” he said. “The story is still about leaving your country with no idea what you will find.”