Philly’s Open Source project opens with massive mural by French artist JR

There’s a new face in Philadelphia. It’s four stories tall, peeking around a tall building in Center City.

It’s a face you haven’t seen before. If it weren’t so large, you probably would not see it at all.

It’s a photograph wheat-pasted in hundreds of sections to the south side of the Graham Building, at 15th and Chestnut streets. The entire figure will be 20 stories high, most of which obscured by the building in front of it.

The pictured man is Ibrahim, an immigrant from Pakistan living in Philadelphia. The artist — a French photographer known only as JR — discovered him working in a food truck downtown.

JR, who is known internationally for the enormous scale of his work and its social activism, was invited by Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program to create a new work related to immigrants. He chose to put Ibrahim on the Graham Building because the surrounding buildings partially obscure the image. Ibrahim appears to be hiding in plain sight.

“I love the fact that he is all about representing people, people who have been at the margins, people who fallen through the cracks, people who are struggling, suffering, have disappeared,” said Jane Golden, director of the Mural Arts Program. “He gives them a forum and makes their voice heard through photographs.”

The work, “Migrants, Ibrahim, Mingora — Philadelphia,” describes Ibrahim’s situation and his home city in Pakistan. It is part of the Mural Arts Program’s series of 14 commissions of temporary public art called Open Source.

All of the works — only one of which is finished at this time, a sculpture at the Paine’s skateboarding park near the Philadelphia Museum of Art — have some form of social engagement. JR’s piece is part of his own series of work related to immigration.

JR won a TED prize in 2011 to launch a project that would “change the world.” He created a service wherein anyone can send him an image, and he would send back a large print of it which could be wheat-pasted onto any surface.

The idea to create a service that anyone can use to his or her own end made him attractive to the Philadelphia Open Source project.

“A lot of development in technology — particularly coding and Internet — are about these group efforts, these open sources,” said Pedro Alonzo, the Boston-based curator of Open Source. “JR is one of the only artists I’ve seen who has done it on an ambitious scale. It’s a global project with TED money — people would send an image and he would print it, so they could post it somewhere.”

The image on Chestnut Street doesn’t try to tell the story of its subject. According to Alonzo, JR didn’t  probe too deeply into Ibrahim’s past or his situation. He was looking more for enthusiasm and a sense of trust.

In the image, Ibrahim’s fingers grip the side of the building and he looks over his shoulder to peer over the roof of the neighboring building. The pose is tucked, and hiding.

Ibrahim is so marginal, he isn’t able to see himself 20 stories high.

“‘Hey, have you seen your picture?'” Alonzo recalled asking Ibrahim. “He said, ‘What? It’s up!? It’s up?!’

“I mean, the guy has two jobs. Like many people who have arrived, he has multiple jobs. That’s what I love about this project — through a very simple gesture, a picture of an individual, it addresses so much that’s going on.”

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