Call it vandalism, a voice of protest or a means of social expression – but when legendary UK street artist Banksy uses the wall as his weapon to create powerful graffiti art, he tends to speak for an entire generation, and he does so with daring playfulness and irreverent humour.
His distinctive works, steeped in unforgiving satire, are a piercing social and political commentary on poignant issues of our time. As his art popped up on streets, walls, walkways, and railway bridges across the globe – after it took his hometown, Bristol, by storm in the 1980s, the striking stencil art and profound imagery became part of the shared cultural vocabulary of people everywhere.
And yet, even at the height of fame, this enigmatic British artist continues to remain an elusive, iconoclastic phenomenon, holding the cloak of invisibility tightly around him.
What makes this anonymous graffiti superhero and the artistic universe he created under the pseudonym Banksy so controversial? What are the themes and message he conveys through his art?
For just a few more weeks, until June 30, residents in the UAE can journey into the creative mind of this mysterious street artist and explore the inexhaustible imagination and influences that have shaped his gutsy work through ‘The World of Banksy: The Immersive Experience’ exhibition staged at The Theatre at Mall of the Emirates, Dubai. The impressive multimedia installation, spread across two floors over 1,000 sq m, features a compelling collection of 120 recreated pieces, including murals, paintings and street art.
Despite the transient and fleeting nature that is the hallmark of the street art form, where its physical location only heightens its impact and irony, Banksy’s themes of capitalism and the human condition resonate strongly at The Theatre – thousands of miles away from their original organic environment.
To follow in the great artist’s footsteps, visitors must journey through a series of rooms, each organised by the location the murals appeared in. At The Theatre, we first step foot into the streets and alleyways of his home country where the artist has been most prolific, and which accounts for more than 80 per cent of his nonconformist, anti-establishment pieces. It is here that we encounter Brexit, a mural originally painted in May 2017 and illustrating the UK’s then upcoming departure from the European Union. Depicting cracks spread out across an EU flag as a workman chips away one of the 12 gold stars on it, this work that appeared on a wall in Dover’s ferry terminal is the artist’s first work addressing UK’s exit from the European Union.
The chimpanzee, a recurring motif in Banksy’s oeuvre, which first made its appearance in 2002 in the work titled Laugh Now, has a cast of primates in his monumental oil painting of the UK’s House of Commons. Titled Devolved Parliament, it offers an insight into the tumultuous face of politics in contemporary Britain.
Banksy portrays his disdain for the police with an idyllic portrait of two kids, frolicking and laughing, and wearing bullet-proof vests emblazoned with the words ‘Police’ that are ironically worn by the children for protection.
It is with Mobile Lovers, created in 2014 in Bristol, that he forces us to reconsider our obsession with technology and ponder its hold on our lives. Depicting an embracing couple hypnotised by their mobile phones, this artwork reinforces the importance of living in the moment.
One of Banksy’s most recognisable images, Girl with Balloon, first created in London in 2002 where the work was originally stencilled on the walls under Waterloo Bridge at Southbank, occupies pride of place at the exhibition.
This enduring image of a young girl in black throws the viewer off balance after first glance. Has the girl just released the red heart-shaped balloon or is she about to catch it? The red balloon – the only colour in the artwork – is associated with the fragility of dreams, innocence, hope, dreams, and love, and could also be interpreted as a wake-up call to hold on to hope, even when it feels out of reach.
To view the unprecedented media storm this stencil spray painting created in 2018 when it began to destroy itself through a shredder hidden inside the frame just as the gavel came down at a Sotheby’s auction, check out the video clipping at the exhibition – Banksy’s rebellious streak is an admirable trait indeed!
The familiar with the unexpected
It was around 2002 that Banksy gave up the aerosol can technique and moved courageously onto the stencil option, which was largely shunned by graffiti artists. Initially, his freehand style merged with stencils until he eventually made the full switch, while retaining the irony and dark humour through figures that appeared both alive and vibrant.
A young girl holding a bomb, the leopard escaping the barcode cage, and a ‘humanised’ image of Lenin remain among his most powerful pieces, where the familiar is juxtaposed with the unexpected.
Meanwhile, a curious little rat journeys along with us through the halls, scurrying into corners, swinging from the ceiling, balancing on the door frames, or perching itself comfortably in quiet nooks. Soon thereafter, full-blown stencilled images of the rodent emerge in various forms – a ‘worthless’ rat holding a can of paint; a Gangsta Rat; one sporting 3D glasses, and another standing on its hind legs and holding radar equipment.
Incidentally, the Radar Rat originally made its first appearance in London – one of the capital cities under the most surveillance in the world.
It is thus we discover the street artist’s fascination with the nocturnal creature whose similarities with graffiti artists are rather pronounced - both artist and rat require an amount of stubbornness and wit to sustain a life in a forbidden medium. As Banksy himself once said, "If you are dirty, insignificant, and unloved, then rats are the ultimate role model."
In the us
We encounter Banksy’s adventures in America through the no-holds barred messages he has left for the people of the United States through numerous murals across the cities. As it happens, the country appears to be a fertile ground to practice his art judging by the rich metaphors and strong ironies permeating the numerous works on exhibit here.
We question the "American Dream" in Follow Your Dreams, Cancelled, where a dissatisfied elderly man deliberately paints the ‘cancelled’ sign in red, over the black and white print, to highlight his harsh reality. In Sale Ends, Banksy calls out the fervour of contemporary society towards consumer goods, a theme that takes a more compassionate perspective in Trolleys. The country’s gun culture and the global fears of a generation raised during the Cold War also echo through in the collection at the exhibition.
Banksy’s signature rats make a comeback in the works that appeared in 2018 during his sojourn in Paris while others take aim at the callous response of the government to the refugee crisis. A main highlight in the Paris collection is the stencilled mural depicting a woman in mourning found on an emergency escape door to the Bataclan, the music venue where 89 people were shot dead by militants in November 2015.
Also at the exhibition are a series of works that remixes canonical works of art. In the 2005 painting, Show Me the Monet, for instance, Banksy litters the Impressionist master’s iconic depiction of the Japanese bridge in his garden at Giverny with discarded shopping trollies and a fluorescent orange traffic cone to denounce society’s culture of consumerism and contempt for the environment.
Most of the iconic murals that appeared in prominent cities have been painted over, or disappeared, but through this immersive exhibition, the images and the characters that inhabit his artworks will live on in Dubai – at least until June 30.