In possibly the most controversial event to happen at a London-based embassy since Ecuador granted Wiki-leaks founder Julian Assange asylum. A new work by the widely-renowned, always controversial and still anonymous graffiti artist Banksy appeared last weekend outside the French embassy in London, criticising the alleged use of tear gas against migrants in Calais.
The artwork, done in Banksy’s now world-famous bleak, uncompromising style, features the iconic image of the young girl from Les Misérables, but with tears in her eyes as gas from a canister billows towards her. The politicised message refers to the alleged use of tear gas by the French authorities in the ‘Jungle’ migrant camp.
Interestingly, in a first for Banksy, the artwork is interactive, as a scannable code appears next to the mural. The artist confirmed on his website he is behind its creation. When viewers hold their phone over the code, it takes them to an online video of police raiding the camps at the beginning of January. The seven-minute clip posted on YouTube shows tear gas, rubber bullets and concussion grenades being used in an overnight raid on the inhabitants of the camp, who run for cover as the siege progresses.
Personally, I find it very interesting how news of such an attack by French authorities escaped widespread media attention. The focus of much of the world’s news has been on Paris since the terrible attacks of last year, yet a story about police gassing immigrants in a camp some 23 miles from the British coast, a camp I saw for myself only last week, fails to make headlines?
This isn’t the first time that the ongoing European immigration situation has been the subject of Banksy’s work, with the artwork part of an ongoing series featuring the camp. Sets and rides from his hugely successful “Dismaland” theme park in Weston-super-Mare were dismantled and sent to the Jungle to be used as shelters, while an image of Apple’s late CEO Steve Jobs appeared on a wall in the camp, highlighting that the technology giant was himself the son of Syrian migrants.
In a rare statement to accompany the work, the mysterious artist said shortly after the murals appeared in Calais: “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 $7 billion (£4.6 billion) a year in taxes – and it only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs.”
The messages Banksy has formerly conveyed through his work have been anti-war, anti-capitalism, anti-fascism and anti-establishment, with anti-oppression now added to that list. He has criticised numerous political parties, the Royal Family, and other powers. He has given away tickets to festivals in exchange for the right to paint on blank murals. He has honoured Princess Diana, the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Holocaust, as well as defending human and animal rights. He has shed light on the darker side of the world: child abuse, child labour, greed, hypocrisy, power, alienation, and now, the suffering of so many in a camp miles from our shore.
Banksy, though operating from behind a mask of anonymity, has said and done more with his works where countless politicians and official appear to have failed. He remains the champion and condemner of so much of our popular culture and zeitgeist today. The world seems to have accepted moving on from mimesis. But who’s to say that art can’t continue to mimic reality and portray its injustices, much as Banksy’s works do?