By Peter Versteeg
In 2007 street artist Banksy organized a project called Santa’s Ghetto in the city of Bethlehem, where international artists would work on the (‘security’ or ‘apartheid’) wall that separates Palestine from Israel. This was two years after Banksy had painted nine works on this wall. Part of the project was an exhibition in which the artists addressed many social issues on the West Bank. Santa’s Ghetto was also deliberately meant to draw tourists to this conflict zone. In the documentary The Man Who Stole Banksy we follow one particular stolen work on its journey on the international art market. The theft of “Donkey Documents”, as the artwork is called, is the occasion for a multi-sited and many faceted story about ownership and value of (street) art, and the relation between art and activism. What sparked my interest most, was the removal and sale of the piece, and the reasons behind it. It seemed to me, however, that the makers took a superficial explanation for the theft, which resulted in a rather one-dimensional narration of the story.
“Donkey Documents” is clearly recognizable as a Banksy piece. It shows a donkey presumably waiting for an Israeli soldier to check his ID. Walid, a local taxi driver, takes offense and decides to cut it from the wall and sell it. Although it is not mentioned in the documentary, calling somebody a donkey means you call somebody stupid.
We hear several Palestinian commentators emphasizing the insulting nature of the piece: he compares us to donkeys! In the documentary this interpretation is given a critical direction: Banksy doesn’t really care about the local discourse, he doesn’t care what the local people think. In other words, Banksy is a colonialist artist, somebody who drops his products in order to push his understanding of a particular context and reap the benefits of it. This brings the filmmakers together with the Palestinians in a critique on colonialism. However, this critique itself can also be read as a rather orientalist representation. The offended show us “the easily insulted hot-tempered Arab”. For the documentary makers this, of course, is excellent story telling. We don’t know whether all Palestinians are of this opinion but through the composition of a critical narrative we believe its affirmation.
However, the real motive for stealing the piece is not made very clear in the film. Despite the emotions, it seems that commercial aspirations could have been another reason for the removal of the piece. There is a businessman involved, who is able to sell the artwork to a Danish art collector. This businessman offers the earnings to a Greek Orthodox parish of which he is part. The parish is able to completely renew the interior of their church.
As I said, other (Palestinian) voices could have been heard about the donkey. The filmmakers mention one alternative: the donkey could be associated with a particular painting of New Zealand artist Horace Moore-Jones. (Iconically, it reminds us of a Good Samaritan image). According to the documentary, Moore-Jones was a First World War deserter (which he in fact was not) and perhaps Banksy’s piece could be a suggestion to IDF forces to desert too. This seems far-fetched, however.
The simplest interpretation is to see the donkey for what it is. Occupation is not only an injustice, it is absurd – even the donkeys are being checked. And if it is what it is, we may start to think of the kind of donkeys it could refer to in this context: e.g. Mary, riding a donkey into Bethlehem, the donkey which according to Christmas tradition was in the stable when Jesus was born. There’s also a donkey mentioned in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Prophet, too, rode a donkey, which actually had carried a whole lineage of prophets, including Jesus of Nazareth. So there seem to be quite positive images available we could refer to. Wouldn’t it be absurd to check the donkey Mary was riding?
The donkey is not stupid. It is a beast of burden, a valuable work force in some rural areas. The critics in this film may be right without knowing it. Palestinians are treated like donkeys, living under occupation with limited rights and limited freedom. But if this is what “Donkey’s Documents” shows then the felt insult can be seen as a denial of the fact that one is being oppressed, because it is experienced as shameful. The real offense, I would say, is oppression. By denying it we pretend it has no power over us.
The documentary ends with a view on a new Banksy project: The Walled Off Hotel. Specific about the hotel is that the rooms have a clear view on the wall. The Walled Off hotel does several things. It shows occupation and segregation and as such it also stimulates the viewing of these things as a commodity. The hotel is in fact a facility for art lovers who come to the Wall to see all the famous graffiti works. Thus, Banksy shows not only the commoditization of human suffering and inequality, he also shows that the enjoying of critical art and the critical art itself are part of consumption culture.
To Walid the hotel is another insult – the wall is bad, why attract tourists to it? His denial is affirmed.
Peter Versteeg is lecturer at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. He likes to reflect on cultural products and the things people do with them.
The Man Who Stole Banksy (2018), seen at the Parool Film Festival, Het Ketelhuis, Amsterdam, 13 October 2018.