Anti-power Antibodies

Banksy’s appeal on behalf of migrants and refugees

The artists, damn it, I understand an intellectual who’s integrated himself,
the poor guy’s someone who reads between the lines […]
the artist’s got no need to integrate himself, the artist shouldn’t integrate himself!
The artist is an antibody society
creates for itself against power

Fabrizio de Andrè

The artist needs to place himself at a certain distance. Assimilation is a virus which can blind him. It’s only if he can look freely and in depth upon the ways in which his audience thinks that he can tell us the stories and trends of our own time. Do artists like these have a place in our world? One of these artists is Banksy, provocateur, at times ambiguous, always authentic.

We know little about his life. Born in Bristol, England, in 1974, he began to paint at the end of the eighties with other local street artists. His preferred form is stencil graffiti, most often painting in black and white, adding in some shading and a few hints of colour. He decries war, capitalism and institutions. It’s police officers, soldiers and children who are most frequently the protagonists of his works, in a semantic tapestry that holds together coloured balloons and armed soldiers, telephone booths and spies in trenchcoats, threatening protestors and apprehensive mums.

His work exploded into popularity in 2005, after having painted graffiti on the wall dividing Israeli territory from the West Bank. Nine murals focusing public opinion on the living conditions of Palestinians living beyond the wall. A wall which became, for all intents and purposes, the main protagonist of these works of art. No longer a neutral prop upon which to scrawl invectives, but in and of itself the artistic subject and object to be contemplated.

In 2015 Banksy expresses himself in solidarity with the migrants and refugees in Calais. On a wall in the Calais refugee camp, the artist paints the most well known son of syrian migrants, Steve Jobs. A work part mural painting, part artistic installation.

A single expository level where the curtain separating fiction from reality disappears. The message is clear: the opportunity given to a Syrian migrant has proven to be an extraordinary investment for the economic future of the country which welcomed him. The graffiti was accompanied by a press release in which the artist revealed his motives: “We’re often led to believe migration is a drain on the country’s resources but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. Apple is the world’s most profitable company, it pays over $7bn (£4.6bn) a year in taxes – and it only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs”.

The artist will return to exposing the dramatic situation of refugees in Calais in a graffiti painted in London, nearby to the French Embassy. The subject of the work is a young girl in tears, Cosette, one of the main characters of Victor Hugo’s Le Misérables.

The expression we see on Cosette’s face is that of the “misérables” of our own time, those for whom we no longer feel moved, men and women evicted by force from the Calais “jungle”. In the background of the mural, a french Tricolore blows in the wind. At the girl’s feet, a spray can and a cloud of gas remind passers-by of the tear gas used by the french police in order to evict refugees from the camp. It’s an interactive work which, by means of a QR code painted at its base, allows us to watch on our smartphones a video of the clashes in Calais.

It’s a rare example of the interaction between art and the denunciation of our society, a work in which technology becomes a bridge between representation and reality.

If seething masses of desperate people no longer attract our compassion, the face of a child in tears might, perhaps, still hold the power to move us. Banksy reminds us that that child’s tears are the fruit of our indifference.

French history once again serves as Banksy’s source of inspiration for another mural painted in Calais: Gericault’s masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa. The events depicted by the celebrated french artist are those of the sinking of the french ship Medusa off the coast of Senegal in 1819. A few survived the shipwreck on a raft, to be rescued by the Argus at a later date. The unfortunate occupants of the raft lived through terrible days. The survivors told tales of murder and acts of cannibalism. Many died, and only fifteen passengers were left alive by the time they were rescued.

The canvas depicts not only the disarticulated figures and abandoned cadavers on the raft, but also that last glimmer of hope held by the survivors. Gericault studies the stories told by the survivors of the shipwreck with precision. In addition to what he had planned in his preparatory sketches, the artist decides to add what appears to be a ship, a small sign of hope on the horizon.

Brandishing a tattered length of cloth, the man calling for help is not facing the observer, but with his shoulders turned towards us is all intent on the sea. The observer finds himself on the raft among the survivers, looking out towards the horizon in search of help. The artist could have chosen to invert the scene, showing us the faces of those asking for help, pleading with the spectator to become one of the rescuers. Yet he insists on pushing us onto that raft. Our place is there among the ones who are desperate. For just a moment, we participate in the tragedy of being shipwrecked, in the tragedy of those many desperate people who, crowded onto small, rickety boats, attempt through great hardship to reach european coasts.

In the mural painted by the british street artist, a yacht and a helicopter cross the horizon. Banksy’s The Raft of the Medusa is a provocation, a question mark spray-painted onto the walls of our conscience. Millions of migrants have boarded that raft today, and that’s us there on the horizon. Welcome to Europe!

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