Banksy ridicules French refugee response
The works of Banksy, a London-based guerrilla street artist, have been both adored and criticized for some time now. Although Banksy’s real identity remains, for the most part, unknown, his art is strongly recognizable due to signature stenciling techniques and strong use of political epigrams in his work.
Beginning in the early nineties, Bansky emerged onto the art scene in London as a talented, freehand graffiti artist. During the late nineties and early 2000’s, Banksy began implementing stenciled graffiti art into his art pieces, which were now almost exclusively street art installations. Around the same time that Banksy began using stencils, his street art began to reflect stronger political and ethical views and opinions. Much of his work, usually satirical in nature, eludes to an anti-war, anti-hate, anti-capitalist movement. His work often times mocks centralized power and criticizes government authority for their role in the poverty, despair, and alienation of powerless individuals.
Because his work is primarily unprotected street art open to the public, many of his works have been concealed, stolen, or even destroyed. With Banksy’s strong political views so present in his work, it probably comes as little to no surprise that a great deal of his art has been destroyed or removed from its original location by government officials who find the artwork offensive or inciting. A large amount of Banksy’s work over the last several years has specifically targeted and criticized officials in both the U.K. and France. This was exactly the case this past week, when government officials ordered that Banksy’s most recent work be removed from its original location.
The mural was painted across the street from the French Embassy in Knightsbridge, London on wooden panels of a developing construction site. The work featured the iconic image from Les Misérables — a young girl, Cosette, standing in front of the French national flag. In the mural, young Cosette is crying while she is overcome by teargas as the empty gas canister lie beside her. Off to the side of the mural was an interactive QR code, which onlookers of the mural could scan via their mobile phones. The QR code was linked to video footage of French police using teargas on refugees in a camp in Calais, France.
The Calais refugee camp has become known as “The Calais Jungle,” or simply “The Jungle,” due to its muddy, swampy, and rundown conditions. The Jungle is now home to over 6,000 refugees, many of which are orphaned children. A large number of migration attempts from The Jungle to the U.K. are reported every day. Government officials from both France and the U.K. have been criticized in the passed year for violent intervention methods they have taken to try and control the situations in the refugee camp. Banksy’s mural draws attention to and highly criticizes the cruel treatment of refugees in the Calais Refugee Camp, and focuses specifically on French police brutality and their alleged increase in use of teargas to control the refugees.
Attempts were made by the embassy to remove the mural within days of it being erected. Photographs taken of the mural before it was taken down reveal the damages to the wood, possibly by crowbars or hammers, which occurred during these apparent removal attempts. After failing to remove the wood on which the mural was painted, the embassy ordered that the mural be concealed from the public, because it was “slanderous” and “incited unnecessary anger from the public.” Onlookers watched and took photographs as a team of men boarded up the mural. Within the last several days, the boarding was allegedly taken down and the mural was revealed once again to the public. This happened several times over the course of three or so days, until the embassy inevitably ordered that the developers on the site remove the mural permanently.
This is not the first time, and likely not the last, that Banksy’s work has criticized the treatment of refugees in Europe and elsewhere. The Les Mis mural is likely part of an ongoing series by Banksy that emphases unjust treatment of refugees specifically residing in The Jungle. He previously painted a mural of Steve Jobs outside the entrance to the camp, highlighting the fact that Steve Jobs, a brilliant and exceedingly successful individual, was son to two Syrians that immigrated to the United States.
New coverage of responses to the mural reported almost unanimous opinions by the public. Many onlookers hope that the striking image of France would tug at the heartstrings of those who hold the fate of the refugees in their hands. Others hoped that it would bring awareness for those suffering in the camps at the Calais Refugee Camp, and in refugee camps all over the world. In response to the mural being removed, many argued that the mural was covered because the French government is ashamed of what it has done, or that it likely has something to hide.
Many artists in the political street art movement share similar opinions. They believe that art should not only be enjoyed for what it is, but admired for what it is capable of. Art can be a powerful tool for sending a message during times of extreme anguish and despair. Art can be a means by which the public is exposed to the injustices brought unto them by the authority under which they reside. Art has an undeniable ability to become whatever we make it and it is my personal hope that artists like Banksy continue to use art as an avenue for change.