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The light in the eyes that captures your attention

Interview with Jorit, street artist

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Published: 10 Jun 2020
“If you paint a pretty flower on the wall of a building in Scampia in Naples, it might be beautiful but it wouldn’t be particularly useful,” says Jorit, an internationally renowned street artist who is talking about the social and communicative potential of street art. “I don’t think a social housing estate really needs a cute picture on a building that is falling to pieces. That is why, through my art, I try to enhance people’s awareness,” he continues. In Scampia, especially, in January 2019 Jorit painted giant portraits of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Angela Davis on the blind façades of two tenement blocks. His aim was to arouse interest in these two symbols of political and philosophical reflection and struggle. People who live in problematic neighbourhoods, says Jorit, should also be guaranteed the chance to live a dignified life and find individual and collective emancipation.

Pier Paolo Pasolini and Angela Davis in Scampia

Jorit’s artistic career began fifteen years ago in the centre of Naples and the suburbs to the north of the city. Over time he has developed an unmistakeable style and the figures he portrays are chosen with courage and a consistent logic. This has led to him being invited to paint all over the world. Despite the attention of critics and museums, his approach has remained inspired by the idea that street art must have something to say, be enjoyed free of charge and spring from a genuine conversation between the artist and the people who live in the area it is located in. “I believe that artists have responsibilities,” says Jorit, “otherwise their work is a wasted opportunity.” Even during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, in addition to creating a spectacular series of negative-style portraits on rooftops in the Barra district of Naples, Jorit also donated a portrait on canvas of the Neapolitan doctor Paolo Ascierto to a charity auction in support of local hospitals.

A video of the murals created by Jorit on rooftops in Naples during lockdown

Despite the attention of critics and museums, his approach has remained inspired by the idea that street art must have something to say, be enjoyed free of charge and spring from a genuine conversation between the artist and the people who live in the area it is located in. “I believe that artists have responsibilities,” says Jorit, “otherwise their work is a wasted opportunity.”
One element in the work of a street portrait artist that would be difficult to overestimate is the role of light. Firstly, there is the painting’s “inner light” that emerges from the colours used and the chiaroscuro effects created by the shape of the face and the illusion of three- dimensionality. Then there is the “external light”, the natural or artificial lighting that illuminates the wall in question over a 24-hour period. In exhibitions and art galleries, more attentive painters now demand that lighting systems are adjusted to suit their works, but when you are painting on buildings, once the mural is completed, it can’t be moved.

“It’s a very complex issue,” says Jorit. “In my experience, as I nearly always use black backgrounds, sometimes lighting can be a problem, as if it comes from the wrong direction, it creates reflections. In a moment, the pupils in a portrait can turn from black to white and, at night, a normal face can turn into a demon with eyes that shine like those of a wolf.” The problem is obviously not resolved by relinquishing lighting, but by choosing a suitable solution. “In Florence, where I painted a portrait of Nelson Mandela, the local authorities positioned specific spotlights so the mural can be seen very clearly. At least it looks that way from the photos I’ve seen. As a rule, I really like the idea of illuminating murals at night, as in addition to improving the area’s aesthetics, they can also become meeting points and landmarks. I would like the institutions I work with to take perspective into account more often.”

A timelapse video of the creation of the Nelson Mandela portrait in Florence

When we walk down the street, shop windows, posters, signs and our smartphone screens fight for our attention. So, creating something that is eye-catching is not easy. Jorit’s decision to paint huge close-up faces on a black background partly depends on this. “I adopted this way of working almost without realising it, as I felt that faces are our most communicative element,” he says. “I really liked eyes and faces and I felt they helped me create a bond with people. It’s difficult to remain indifferent when you see a face. You can’t ignore it and you’re struck, even if it’s just for a fraction of a second. The observer has to look at it and ask themselves questions. In time, I have perfected my technique. I have always loved realism, so I graduated naturally towards this form of neorealism in street art”.

Jorit’s gallery of portraits – a pantheon of activists, intellectuals and cultural subversion icons – also seems to be the result of a long-term project, but it was actually constructed one step at a time. “Every project has its own story,” he explains, “it’s not a linear progression. From the outside, perhaps it looks as though there is a road all mapped out and all I have to do is sit there and accelerate. But, actually, for people like me, who do this kind of work and have this kind of passion, there is no road. I had to invent it on my own, using Banksy as a reference point.”