An artwork by French artist JR depicting a Ukrainian refugee named Valeriia, aged only 5, has been featured on the cover of Time. The magazine will be releasing a double issue for March 28 to April 4, highlighting the war in Ukraine.
One of the covers feature a photograph by Ukrainian artist Maxim Dondyuk depicting the country’s agony in the face of the Russian invasion. The image shows a Ukrainian soldier helping a mother and her child evacuate the Kyiv suburb of Irpin, which Russian forces are trying to seize in their bid to besiege the capital.
The other issue, emphasising the resilience of the Ukrainian people, features JR’s artwork. A 45-metre tarp print of a photograph taken by Ukrainian photographer Artem Iurchenko, the artwork was unfurled and hoisted by more than 100 people on Monday outside Lviv's National Opera.
The Time cover portrays a top-down view of the event. Since then, Valeriia's beaming face has become a symbol of Ukraine’s fortitude against the ongoing Russian onslaught.
Who is Valeriia?
According to Time, Valeriia is from Kryvyi Rih, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s home town in central Ukraine. After Russian forces began attacking the country on February 24, Valeriia fled with her mother to Poland. Her father and brother are still in Ukraine, but according to Valeriia’s mother, Taisiia, they talk on a daily basis.
“It was very hard to leave Ukraine, very hard,” Taisiia told Time. “But everyone wants to take care of their children, so a lot of people were trying to get out. The lines for buses and trains stretched 3 kilometres. The people, most of them women and children, were packed together in almost no space. We had to stand for 18 hours on the train to Lviv.”
It was in Lviv, an industrial city near Ukraine’s border with Poland, where Iurchenko photographed Valeriia. In an Instagram post published on Thursday, JR said he had reached out to the Ukrainian photographer, asking him to send images of the refugees crossing the border into Poland.
“It’s the first time that there’s a war that’s so close to me that I can literally drive to it,” JR said in a video post. “These past few days I was only following the news on social media, but I’d rather be in the action.
“I spoke with a Ukrainian photographer at the border, and he said he was seeing a lot of people there. I asked him to send me some photos of kids you see around you.”
Iurchenko sent JR a number of images and among them was the photograph of Valeriia smiling ear to ear as she had just made it across the border to Poland.
“We decided to print it on a giant tarp,” JR said. “We drove to Poland, to the forest close to the border and we prepped it and rolled it […] then crossed the border walking.”
In Ukraine, JR and his team loaded the tarp in a car belonging to people they had met through social media.
When the team arrived at the square in Lviv, “there was nobody,” JR said. A few minutes later, people began gathering.
“There were literally 100 people,” he said. “I couldn’t believe. We gathered them, and I explained the project. We had a big conversation about the meaning of it, and everybody was like ‘okay, let’s go to action’.”
Holding the tarp by its ends, the crowd began walking as more people began joining them, JR said. “People from the army, young girls, old people, young people. All kinds of persons were there helping.”
The post then shows JR chatting to Valeriia and her mother through a video call. As JR tells her that more than 100 people gathered to hoist her image in protest of the war, Valeriia smiles shyly before turning to hug her mother.
“Your smile is shining to the entire world,” JR told her. “And whoever goes up to the sky can see your smile. You’re going to remind all the people up there, flying above Ukraine that there are people like you that we need to protect.”
Who is JR?
A photographer and artist who was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2018, JR’s work is known for pulling back the curtain on social realities.
JR, whose artistic moniker is derived from the initials of his first name, Jean Rene, is a self described “urban artivisit” and began his career as a teenage graffiti artist working in places such as rooftops and subway tunnels.
Among his most renowned works is the series Portraits of a Generation, which showed photographs of people from Les Bosquets, a suburb of Paris that was the epicentre of the 2005 French riots, in a bid to remedy the skewed representation of the suburb’s inhabitants.
His 2007 Face 2 Face project, in collaboration with Marco Berrebi, exhibited enormous photos of Israelis and Palestinians face-to-face, in eight cities on either side of the separation wall. His 2008 touring project Women Are Heroes highlighted the dignity and resilience of women targeted during conflicts.
He has also directed Ellis, a 2015 short film starring Robert de Niro, which tells the story of the immigrants who built the US, and has led several projects that blend art with activism in Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa.