White Privilege Gives Banksy Undeserved Attention

Oluwa Jones ’15

Assistant Opinions Editor

Last week, English street artist Banksy created several murals in the Gaza Strip. The artist stenciled a cat on the side of a house that was destroyed by Israeli air strikes. The artist argues that people on the Internet will look at pictures of kittens but will not acknowledge the ethnic cleansing in Palestine. He also posted a short film on his website that depicted life in Gaza entitled “Make this the year YOU discover a new destination.” One of the text screens in the film reads, “If we wash our hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless we side with the powerful — we don’t remain neutral.”

On banksy.co.uk, the artist wrote, “Gaza is often described as ‘the world’s largest open-air prison’ because no one is allowed to enter or leave. But that seems a bit unfair to prisons — they don’t have their electricity and drinking water cut off randomly almost every day.”

This is not the first time Banksy has done work in the West Bank, nor is he the only artist trying to grab the world’s attention. Palestinian artist Tawfik Gebreel took images of Israeli air strike smoke and turned them into powerful images of familial love and unity. In describing the work, the artist said he used “universal humanitarian language understood by all peoples of the world.” Sobheya Abu Rahma, a Palestinian mother whose son was killed by the Israeli army, uses empty tear gas canisters to grow roses. She transforms these tools of war into symbols of hope and rebirth.

Palestinian artists have gone to extreme lengths to get the attention of the Western media, yet Banksy’s cat stencils have received more mainstream attention than the bulk of this work. Banksy’s status as a white man influences the way we perceive him and his work.

In an article in Vulture, famous art critic Jerry Saltz writes, “His black silhouette figures, surreptitiously painted on walls around [New York], strike me as formulaic tweaked political cartooning and anarchy-lite.” Saltz goes on to compare Banksy to Kara Walker, another artist who uses the stencil technique but to explore race, gender and the history of slavery in the United States. As Saltz notes, Banksy’s work “doesn’t pack anywhere near the formal or psychological incendiary wallop as Walker’s.” Walker, a black female artist, did not receive widespread mainstream recognition until her 2014 exhibition entitled “Marvelous Sugar Baby.” Most notably, the series featured a massive, sugar-coated, sphinx-like woman in Brooklyn’s legendary Domino Sugar Factory.

The difference between Banksy, Walker and any Palestinian artist is that only certain acts of creativity seem to matter—those which are perceived as the least threatening. Banksy is a white English man named Robin Gunningham, who works with a team of artists to create pretty repetitive works with the same themes around war, capitalism and the establishment — themes Saltz described as “anarchy-lite.” Discussions of Banksy’s work rarely note his race or gender, yet his work obviously comes from someone unconcerned with the everyday power struggles non-white men have to deal with. It’s true that Banksy’s work brought much-needed attention to the region. This is what individuals are supposed to do with their white privilege and celebrity status. However, Banksy speaking on behalf of Palestinians does not make it easier to end Israeli Apartheid. Ironically, it further marginalizes them by making it seem like they are incapable of speaking on their own. The implication is that the only views on the conflict that matter are those of white men. Banksy has robbed the Palestinians of the power of self-determination, which comes from speaking for and defining yourself.

Additionally, the point of the piece is largely moot as the artists later backtracked in the New York Times. They claimed, “I don’t want to take sides. But when you see entire suburban neighborhoods reduced to rubble with no hope of a future — what you’re really looking at is a vast outdoor recruitment center for terrorists. And we should probably address this for all our sakes.” This has led many to conclude that Banksy’s murals in Palestine were just a publicity stunt. The artist doesn’t want to upset the wealthy patrons who purchase his work for a million dollars at auction.

Good intentions or not, it’s important to recognize why Banksy’s work gets more attention and why we shouldn’t be content with the systematic discrimination that silences women and people of color. Banksy’s race and gender matter because his work is seen as legitimate, superior and race-neutral. We should want to hear from the people of color experiencing these injustices, not just their white allies. Making race visible is an important part of decentralizing whiteness and maleness, which are still seen as the normative state of humanity.

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