by Sophie Fox-Davison
Our August NMM Hero of the Month is none other than the infamously elusive, cult street artist, Banksy. Banksy has been beguiling the world with his street art since his subversive, and often humorous stencil art began popping up over Bristol in the 1990’s. NMM has decided to select Banksy as hero of the month as we believe he is not so much an artist with a political agenda, but rather a political activist and fervent humanitarian who uses art to create a discourse on the injustices of the world. He is an artist who does not simply comment on the state of things, but is instead taking an active role in trying to change them. His latest effort to do so has been funding a rescue boat to transport refugees to safety.
The vessel departed in secret from Burriana, a small town in the Province of Castellón on the eastern coast of Spain on 18th August. It is currently in the Mediterranean in search of a safe port. According to The Guardian, the boat is crewed by a number of European activists who rescued “89 people in distress, including 14 women and four children.”
The boat, Louise Michel, is named after the feminist French anarchist and political activist. It is a poignant nod to the progressive ideals of the Paris Commune, and perhaps a gentle reminder to France of its amnesia to their revolutionary past. The boat is adorned with a Banksy artwork, depicting a young girl in a lifejacket and holding up a heart-shaped life ring. It is a variation on his world-famous ‘Girl with Balloon’ artwork. The artist has consistently adopted the stencil several times in his career to support various social campaigns, such as in 2005 to support Palestinians in the West Bank barrier and in 2014 to show solidarity with Syrian refugees.
Banksy became involved in the rescue boat back in 2019 when he offered former captain of several NGO rescue boats, Pia Klemp, financial support — even though the latter thought it was a joke at first. His email read as follows:
“Hello Pia, I’ve read about your story in the papers. You sound like a badass. I am an artist from the UK and I’ve made some work about the migrant crisis, obviously I can’t keep the money. Could you use it to buy a new boat or something? Please let me know. Well done. Banksy.”
NMM would also like to acknowledge Klemp for her amazing activist work. She states in The Guardian that “I don’t see sea rescue as a humanitarian action, but as part of an anti-fascist fight.” Owing to Banksy’s financial support, Klemp and her team of activists were able to purchase a boat (funnily enough formerly belonging to French customs) that is smaller, yet faster, than average rescue vessels. Klemp hopes that the Louise Michel will “outrun the so-called Libyan coastguard before they get to boats with refugees and migrants and pulls them back to the detention camps in Libya.” The Libyan coastguard has consistently fallen under international criticism for the mistreatment of people at sea and trafficking people into militias.
The Louise Michel mission is but one of several attempts to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean. However, many of these attempts have been impeded by the “excessive and politically motivated inspections carried out by the Italian authorities.” In 2020 alone, more than 500 refugees have died at sea, but owing to the clandestine nature of smuggling missions, sadly this number is believed to be much higher.