Fine Art & Flying Toilets

kibera_artThis is an amazing photographic art project and a heart-wrenching video created by JR, a French photographer who has used his artistry to uplift and turn our collective eye to a region known primarily for being one of the largest slums in the world.

Located in Nairobi in Africa, Kibera is a sprawl of cramped shacks without running water, plumbing or sanitation. Hunger, disease, crime and flooding are common. It is also estimated that 440,000 people living in the slum have HIV, and cannot afford the medical treatment necessary for their disease. That's 1/5 of the total HIV population in Kenya.

Despite the despair and hardship, Kibera is considered an improvement to the living conditions of many of its inhabitants - refugees, survivors of starvation, women and children displaced by war and poverty, rape and murder campaigns. They all make their way to Kibera to find shelter and sanctuary.

Tijuana_SlumThe art project collects the stories of a few women of Kibera, then takes simple black-and-white photographs of them smiling. Many of the tales, however, are gruesome nightmares - and create a soul-jarring contrast to the inspiring and touchingly human images.

While the 4-minute video moved me to tears, the corresponding clever installation of those images into giant murals pasted to walls, buses, rooftops (the material selected actually improves the soundness of the shaky structures) is what is truly stunning, all designed to inspire and uplift the people of the region.

The art project was created to celebrate the endurance and strength of the women of Kibera, women who have suffered unimaginable horrors such as being forced to watch the murder of their children and husbands, and who - despite it all - continue to try to knit the fabric of family and society into an ever-tighter weave.

For the longest time, I only thought a slum like Kibera existed in faraway places, on other continents.

Little did I know that you could drive less than hour from my front door and be in the middle of one. There, I met a 17-year-old kid living in a shack with his four younger brothers and sisters using a bucket for a toilet and selling gum on the street to try to make enough money to buy rice for dinner.

My friend Jenny, always a volunteer and activist, had recruited me to help build houses from garage doors in the slums of Tijuana. (That's the place in the amazing picture, above, taken by Vermin87.) My arrival in that place was mind-blowing. Standing there, with the visual, that smell, that experience - well, it was a realization that shook me to the core. It hit me in a real way that "Eat all of your food - there are children starving in Africa," never did.

I finally, really understood that being working class in America is an unbelievably luxurious dream life for most of the rest of the world.

I remember at the end of that long day one family from the slum cooked food for us over an open fire in their cramped 10 x 10' space as a means of thanks. And I truly understood what that meant for them to do that. Giving something away when you have nothing is an unbelievable gift.

That insight is why I will definitely be taking my kids to travel, to volunteer, to see the world first-hand. Experience fosters  a different kind of to-the-bone understanding. Empathy and compassion are hard-earned, like anything else, and must have our full attention in order to grow.

I really need to remember that.

P.S. If you're curious about the term 'flying toilet' (I've received email from people wanting to know), click here.




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I am a writer and lazy artist who loves travel, architecture and design. Right now, I'm into photography. My fabulous husband (a.k.a. The Varmint) and I are also the principals of a San Diego-based creative agency - and new parents to the divine Baby Mak. Read More >