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New exhibition asks: 'Who the f*** is Banksy?'

25.09.2020

The Louise Michel is Banksy's rescue boat for migrants

The most famous street artist on the planet holds no trademark on his works, but the enigmatic Briton definitely owns his identity, as a new exhibit shows.

Since his graffiti art began appearing around Bristol, England, in the early 1990s, the question has remained: Who is Banksy? An individual? A man or a woman? Or is there a collective behind the name? Despite ongoing speculation about his identity, we know only one thing about Banksy with certainty: his works. Under the title Who the f*** is Banksy?, the Rosenhang Museum in Weilburg on the Lahn in Hesse, central Germany, is now exhibiting 25 of them from his iconic street art oeuvre.

"The focus will not be on art, but on the figure of Banksy," exhibition co-curator Michael Schulz told DW of a show that celebrates diverse aspects of his work — from record covers to a pop art portrait of Kate Moss for electro producer Dirty Funker to a print of Banksy's iconic stencil artwork Girl with Balloon

The composer Lutz Fahrenkrog-Petersen developed background music for an "art cage" at the exhibition, including some from a band that Banksy was allegedly a member of in his hometown of Bristol.

"It's irrelevant whether Banksy is a group or a woman. He's a phenomenon. You have to leave it at that," added Schulz in reference to an artist who generally refuses to exhibit his works in museums because he doesn't believe people should have to pay to see his art.

Banksy's Andy Warhol-inspired portrait of Kate Moss from 2005 is on show at the Rosenhang Museum

Internal contradictions? 

Banksy might oppose the commodification of his art that addresses the political issues of our time — from refugee rights to Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis — but he is also a victim of his own success. His popularity has created "an eerie commercialism that Banksy rejects deep down," said Schultz. 

The difficult question of who Banksy is must include the discrepancy between his critique of capitalism and the millions of dollars his works generate. The street artist himself contributed to the hype, including his decision to maintain a secret identity.

In 2010, as director of the Exit Through the Gift Shop Bansky biopic, he added a chapter to his own iconography. Some might say that Banksy knows how to market himself, and therefore add value to artworks like Devolved Parliament, his painting that sold for nearly $12 million (€10.9 million) in October 2019. His Girl with Balloon, which shredded itself during an auction, also increased in value after the action despite it being a criticism of the art market.

A print of "A Girl with Balloon," arguably Banksy's defining motif, is also on show

Banksy as benefactor

The curator does not see any hypocrisy in this. "What does he do with his money?" asks Michael Schulz with a view to the Louise Michel, the Banksy-funded rescue sea vessel that picks up stranded refugees in the Mediterranean as part of the German rescue organization Sea-Watch. In a reworking of his Girl with Balloon, the artist has painted a girl wearing a life jacket and holding up a pink heart-shaped floating device on the boat (see top image). 

In July, Banksy auctioned off an art triptych and announced that the proceeds of €2.3 million ($2.8 million) would be used to build a stroke center in a Palestinian hospital in Bethlehem and to finance children rehabilitation efforts. 

The triptych had previously hung in the Bethlehem Hotel Walled Off, which mockingly advertises its view of the embattled West Bank and was co-founded by Banksy. Last Christmas, Banksy created a nativity scene on the shot-up barrier wall next door. 

Banksy has also reacted to the coronavirus pandemic with a stencil of rats in the London Underground that promoted mask wearing. And in May he left a work of art in a hospital in Southampton as a thank you to the nursing staff. The painting is to be auctioned off for a good cause in the Northern Hemisphere's fall months.

Refugees' rights, Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis: Banksy's political artworks
The Louise Michel, a rescue boat for refugees

Banksy has funded a boat to rescue refugees trying to cross from North Africa to Europe. The Louise Michel, named after a 19th-century French feminist anarchist, is covered with pink paint and the street artist's graffiti. According to "The Guardian," 89 people were rescued on Thursday. Since the beginning of 2020, at least 500 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

Refugees' rights, Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis: Banksy's political artworks
A statement on systemic racism

A vigil candle sets fire to the US flag: Banksy revealed in June 2020 on Instagram a painting commenting on George Floyd's killing and honoring the Black Lives Matter movement. "People of color are being failed by the system. The white system," the artist wrote. "This is a white problem. And if white people don't fix it, someone will have to come upstairs and kick the door in," he added.

Refugees' rights, Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis: Banksy's political artworks
The superheroes of the coronavirus pandemic

Spiderman and Batman are yesterday's superheroes: This little boy prefers to play with a nurse wearing a face mask and a cape. With this picture revealed at the beginning of May 2020, Banksy paid tribute to the outstanding contribution of doctors, nurses and hospital workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Refugees' rights, Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis: Banksy's political artworks
Ready for takeoff?

In December 2019, Banksy posted a video showing his mural of reindeer taking off -but instead of Santa's sleigh in tow, it's a man lying on a bench, aimed to draw attention to the plight of the homeless. "God bless Birmingham," the artist wrote. "In the 20 minutes we filmed Ryan on this bench passers-by gave him a hot drink, two chocolate bars and a lighter — without him ever asking for anything."

Refugees' rights, Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis: Banksy's political artworks
'Devolved Parliament' — Made in Britain

The elusive street artist created in 2009 "Devolved Parliament," featuring chimps instead of politicians in the British Parliament. Amid the chaos caused by Brexit, the work embodies the country's political atmosphere. The 2.8 x 4.5-meter (around 9 x 15-foot) painting was auctioned off in London in October 2019 for 9.8 million pounds (around €11 million).

Refugees' rights, Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis: Banksy's political artworks
And it's half gone...

Another auction at Sotheby's in London also caused a huge stir. Just after Banksy's painting "Girl with Balloon" was sold for 1 million pounds (then 1.2 million euros) in 2018, it began to self-destruct as a shredder was hidden in the lower part of the frame, but it did not complete the process. It morphed into "Love is in the Bin." The motif first appeared in 2002 as a mural in London.

Refugees' rights, Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis: Banksy's political artworks
On show rather than at auction

The millions of pounds that "Devolved Parliament" reaped in October also sparked criticism, with no information about the buyer provided. Likewise in October, Banksy installed artwork in a closed shop in London as a commentary, saying that artworks at auction had become the property of the rich rather being the common property of people at large.

Refugees' rights, Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis: Banksy's political artworks
The World of Banksy

Banksy is one of the most famous street artists in the world, yet his true identity remains under wraps. Paintings or drawings on paper are rare creations of his. Instead, the British artist sprays most of his works anonymously on buildings, walls, and demolition ruins. Such street art is not for sale.

Refugees' rights, Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis: Banksy's political artworks
Steve Jobs

A recurring theme in his works is the predatory nature of global capitalism. Banksy sprayed this mural in the entrance area of the refugee camp in Calais, southern England. Depicted is the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, carrying his legendary first Mac computer. The father of the Apple director hailed from Syria.

Refugees' rights, Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis: Banksy's political artworks
A statement about Brexit

Banksy addressed the Brexit debate in the UK with this work back in 2017. Overnight, this picture appeared on the wall of a house not far from the ferry port in Dover ferry port: It shows a man standing on a ladder trying to remove one of the EU stars with a hammer and chisel. The image has meanwhile disappeared from the wall, with someone having whitewashed it.

Refugees' rights, Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis: Banksy's political artworks
Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The British street artist has also addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2017, Banksy opened The Walled Off Hotel, an actual hotel featuring his artworks, in Bethlehem right next to the controversial Israeli West Bank barrier. The artist has also left quite a few of his artworks throughout this historic town since 2005, drawing many tourists on a "Banksy Tour."

Refugees' rights, Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis: Banksy's political artworks
War is not a child's game

One known fact about Banksy's identity is that the world-famous artist comes from Bristol in southern England. He moved on to London at the end of the 1990s and began to spray his pictorial messages onto the walls of selected locations. Here, he was back in Bristol in 2016, leaving behind a mural at a English primary school in Whitchurch.

Refugees' rights, Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis: Banksy's political artworks
Global climate crisis

As an artist, Banksy has always been a visionary. In his wall works, he has often addressed the political problems of the future, such as global warming, as shown here. He created this sprayed message in London in 2009 — long before US President Trump announced this sentence in all seriousness.

Refugees' rights, Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis: Banksy's political artworks
Criticism of the media

Banksy has also denounced the brutalization of the media, which jumps onto the bandwagon of sensationalism with regard to war and terrorist attack victims. This is depicted in this work entitled "Media at war," which, like some of his other works, has not been sprayed onto a building wall, making it possible to exhibit it in a gallery, such as here in London in 2018.

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No to copyright, yes to trademark

"Copyright is for losers" was the stenciled motto the street artist was long known for. But in 2014, he decided to register his legendary street art work Flower Thrower, created in the West Bank in 2005, as a EU trademark. In 2019, a British company that sold postcards with the motif successfully appealed against the artist's trademark rights.

The EU's intellectual property office recently upheld the decision by stating that Banksy was keeping his identity secret and had repeatedly spoken out against copyright in the past.

"He certainly hasn't changed his mind," said Michael Schulz. "Banksy simply wanted to avoid anyone making money with his work." It also seems certain that he will continue to keep his identity secret, trademark or not.  

Banksy feels that his art should ultimately belong to everyone. But when asking Who the f*** is Banksy?, it seems his identity will always remain his personal property. 

Who the f*** is Banksy? runs September 26 through November 15, 2020, at the Rosenhang Museum in Hesse, Germany. 

This article was originally written in German and has been adapted into English by Stuart Braun

Torsten Landsberg