The ever infamous and mysterious British artist Banksy has always created thought-provoking, jarring, and subversive artwork. Despite his accomplishments, many of Banksy’s critics have argued that his works are pretentious and geared more towards shock value. While sardonic humor and disillusionment are certainly elements of his pieces, social commentary is the overarching theme. From his stencil drawings on debris in Gaza, Egypt to the creation of his “bemusement park” Dismaland, Banksy’s intent has been to enlighten the masses about societal ills. Most recently, Banksy has created artwork that calls attention to the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.
Clashes between the Free Syrian Army, Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s regime, ISIS, and Kurdish soldiers have rendered Syria a war zone and placed civilians in peril. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, over 250,000 Syrians have been killed since the beginning of the civil war, over 1 million people have been injured, 4.3 million people have fled Syria, 7.6 million people have been displaced within the country, and life expectancy has decreased by almost 13 years. Additionally, over 1 million immigrants have entered Europe in 2015 and approximately half of them are from Syria. However, the shootings in Paris committed by members of ISIS, along with the shootings committed by ISIS supporters in San Bernardino, California, have led to a misguided and heightened level of anti-Muslim sentiment globally.
In 2014, Banksy collaborated with #WithSyria, an international movement comprised of 130 humanitarian and human rights groups dedicated to raising awareness about the Syrian civil war and supporting the people affected by it. In March 2014, #WithSyria released a video commemorating the three year anniversary of the Syrian civil war. The video repurposes Banksy’s stencil drawing Balloon Girl as a short animation of a young Syrian girl playing with a red balloon in front of a large wall. The girl then grabs the balloon and is carried above the wall as she overlooks the carnage of a ravaged Syrian city. There’s an explosion in the distance and below her a child is crying over a bloodied corpse. The girl sheds a single tear, but she’s immediately greeted by a smiling young boy floating with his own red balloon. The two children are then accompanied by people from all around the world who are also floating as they grasp red balloons. Idris Elba is the narrator and the song “The Blanket of Night” by English alternative rock band Elbow plays throughout the video. The prayerful lyrics, “From the place we were born, to the land of the free. Carry both of us. Carry her, carry me,” evoke a sense of optimism for the Syrian victims of warfare. The video ends with the quote, “There is always hope,” which was originally etched on the side of a staircase in Balloon Girl.
Throughout his career, Banksy has been anti-establishment and anti-war, so it’s only natural that he would become involved with the #WithSyria movement. Unfortunately, many people are still indifferent to the plight of refugees and/or bigoted. Xenophobia and Islamophobia are ubiquitous which has made immigration inhospitable for migrants from Muslim nations. Syrian refugees who have been victimized by terrorism and a despotic regime are being vilified simply because of their religious beliefs and nationality. To counteract these prejudicial notions, Banksy is using his activism and artistic talents to craft an insightful narrative.
Banksy recently visited the refugee camp known as the “Jungle” in Calais, France. While there, he created four new pieces of artwork. Each image illustrates the need for the humane treatment of refugees. For one of his pieces, Banksy created a modernized version of French painter Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. This work also harkens back to Banksy’s earlier piece titled Immigrants on a Boat which was featured in Dismaland. In Banksy’s rendition, refugees are travelling in a ferry and desperately trying to catch the attention of a luxury yacht in the distance. Thousands of refugees have died or gone missing en route to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. One of the most alarming instances was the death of a three-year old Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi. On September 2, 2015, Kurdi’s corpse was found lying face down on the coast of Turkey. He, his brother, and his mother all died on their way to Europe with only the father surviving. Many of these deaths could be mitigated, but a number of European countries have failed to provide legal and safe land routes. Even refugees that successfully reach Europe have to contend with xenophobia and meager living conditions. The caption for this piece reads, “We’re not all on the same boat.”
Banksy’s most notable piece at the camp is a mural that depicts Steve Jobs holding an old Apple computer terminal in one hand and slinging a black bin liner over his shoulder. On Banksy’s website there’s a caption under the image that reads, “The son of a migrant from Syria.” Steve Jobs’ biological father is Abdulfattah “John” Jandali, a Muslim from Homs, Syria who emigrated to the United States in the 1950s. Although Jandali grew up in a wealthy Syrian family, he was a pan-Arabist activist who advocated for Arab unity and independence. He was even briefly arrested after demonstrating for the independence of Algeria. Jandali studied at the American University of Beirut, but fled to America after protests and demonstrations forced Bechara El Khoury to resign as President of Lebanon.
Even though Steve Jobs was given up for adoption, he was able to have an accomplished career because Jandali was allowed to live in America. People regardless of their lineage or cultural identity are capable of succeeding if given the right opportunity. Our preconceived notions sometimes hinder our capacity for kindness, and Banksy’s piece reminds us that we should not shun or discard human beings. It also exposes the hypocrisy of people who revere the wealthy while reviling so-called “undesirables.” As reported by British newspaper The Guardian, Banksy explained, “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 into the U.S.”
In addition to his artwork, Banksy spearheaded a project called Dismal Aid to help improve the living conditions in the “Jungle” refugee camp. Members of Banksy’s team used the leftover materials from Dismaland to build twelve permanent dwellings, a community area, and a children’s playground.
Banksy has yet again challenged the status quo, and his latest works exemplify the importance of compassion and understanding. Although terrorism is a legitimate threat, it’s illogical and unconscionable to condemn an entire religion or group of people due to the actions of extremists. ISIS is not representative of all Muslims just like the Ku Klux Klan is not representative of all Christians. The United States is a nation of immigrants, so it’s hypocritical to deny refugees the opportunity to establish new lives for themselves. Even Donald Trump, for example, is the son of a Scottish immigrant and the grandson of German immigrants. Atrocities have been committed by a myriad of individuals from a number of backgrounds, but the majority of people simply wish to enjoy prosperous lives.