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Street art Powerful responses to asylum exhibit in Geneva

As part of an international project called "Inside Out" by the French street artist JR, Geneva-based photographer Mark Henley shot 51 portraits of asylum seekers in their homes furnished by the canton of Geneva.

Their faces, shown at ground level, have proven irresistible to passers-by. Does the fascination stem from the rejection felt by migrants and refugees or is it a function of how pedestrians come across the portraits?

Only one night after the installation was set up at a roundabout in Plainpalais – a big open space in the centre of the city that sports a skate park, and is regularly used for flea and farmer markets, amusement rides, and Switzerland’s leading circus, Knie, at the start of each school year – vandals and rain severely damaged the portraits.

It was a deliberate act of racism, according to Henley, who is based in Geneva and has twice won the Swiss Press Photo Award. Nearly all the portraits feature young men of colour. Henley repaired the damage by installing new prints on the ground, but only a few hours later they were again damaged.

The project coordinator, who has had the support of the cantonal office for social and financial assistance, says they knew vandalism might result. "We were aware of such a possibility. Once installed, these portraits belong to the people, like everything that JR does,” said Jessica Tabary, an art therapist. Even so, the incidents beg the question whether it is reasonable or respectful to give passers-by – and vandals – the chance to walk all over or destroy the portraits of lives already uprooted.

The 51 portraits can be viewed at a subsequent exhibition opening next week at the Galerie La Cave. There will also be selfies shot by the refugees around the city, along with pictures taken by photographer Juliette Russbach of the refugees interacting with various others in the city such as firefighters, police and dancers.

Birds eye view

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