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'The Mystery of Banksy': The unauthorized exhibition

Anastassia Boutsko
November 9, 2023

The traveling exhibition "The Mystery of Banksy — A Genius Mind" is attracting hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. But what is behind the show? And what does Banksy actually say about it?

A statue of a chimpanzee dressed as a bellhop at the entrance to an exhibition space.
A visit to the exhibition in Cologne, where "The Mystery of Banksy — A Genius Mind" has been on show since November 3Image: I. Dyachenko/DW

Banksy: Even people who don't care about art have heard the name. The artist whose trademark is anonymity is also considered the creator of some of the most famous works of street art of all time. Consider the kissing policemen, the anarchist throwing a flower bouquet instead of a Molotov cocktail, or the little girl reaching for a red balloon that's floating away.

Spectacular actions like the self-shredding of an artwork right after it sold at auction for a large sum of money have gained Banksy a reputation as a kind of Robin Hood of the art world, a critically-thinking free spirit, a prankster.

Banksy shows: 'Sweepings from the studio floor'?

It's much easier to see a Banksy work on a poster or on the artist's own Instagram account than to glimpse one out in the wild. Street art is, by definition, an ephemeral form of expression.

To get a picture of this busy artist's entire oeuvre, you would have to travel almost the entire world. Art experts say Banksy has been active in at least 20 countries over the last two decades — and not just in the artist's hometown of Bristol or in London, but also in hard-to-reach corners of the world, for example in Bethlehem and on the border with the Gaza Strip, where Banksy has been spray-painting since 2015 and has run a hotel near the barrier wall since 2017. Or in the destroyed suburbs of Kyiv, using the ruins of war for powerful expressions of solidarity.

 Stenciled Banksy graffiti on a destroyed wall in Borodianka, Ukraine, showing a child performing a Karate flip on an adult.
Ukrainian David against Russian Goliath: Banksy's statement on the war in UkraineImage: Celestino Arce Lavin/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

But, in some cases, you can stay closer to home and simply go to a Banksy exhibition. As the artist's fame has grown, so have the efforts to place Banksy in a museum context. One exhibition was even authorized by Banksy — titled "Cut & Run," which was held in Glasgow last summer and featured mostly the stencils used to create the iconic street art works. As Banksy described it, "While the unauthorized Banksy shows may look like the sweepings from the floor of my studio, 'Cut & Run' actually is the sweepings from the floor of my studio.”

Banksy: a star for the masses

Following this logic, visitors to the unauthorized show entitled "The Mystery of Banksy. A Genius Mind" are not getting to see the actual "studio sweepings.” But that's done nothing to diminish the popularity of the traveling exhibition, which has been touring Europe since 2021. It's currently being shown simultaneously in Stockholm, Hanover and Cologne, the exhibition's twentieth stop, where it's been on display since November 3.

According to the promoter — who usually books music stars like David Garrett on Germany's stages, or organizes newfangled "immersive exhibitions" about Tutankhamun or Salvador Dali — more than two million people have already visited the Banksy show. The agency says that in Cologne alone, 15,000 tickets were sold within a short time on the opening weekend.

Three men sit on a bench outside the exhibition "Banksy — A Genius Mind" in Cologne, looking at their phones. Behind them is a Bansky work showing a policeman in riot gear, holding an automatic rifle, with a smiley for a face, and angel wings.
Outside the exhibition "The Mystery of Banksy — A Genius Mind" in Cologne, held in a former car dealershipImage: I. Dyachenko/DW

The Cologne exhibition is being housed in an former car dealership, while in Hanover it is on display in a shuttered supermarket, helping to revitalize the city center. According to the curator of the show, Virginia Jean, "Many visitors travel several hours to see a Banksy exhibition," despite the fact that the exhibition does not feature a single Banksy original.

Crowds line up at the ticket counter for the exhibition "The Mystery of Banksy — A Genius Mind" in Cologne.
Drawing crowds: tickets sales for the exhibition have been briskImage: I. Dyachenko/DW

"We deliberately avoid using originals," says Jean. "We don't see our project as a Banksy exhibition, but as a tribute to this artist." A team of thirty people, including specialist installers, electricians and six professional graffiti artists, set up the exhibition in the empty space in just ten days — a masterpiece in itself.

A photo from the exhibition "The Mystery of Banksy — A Genius Mind" showing a red-and-gold colored elephant statue standing in a room decorated to look like a living room, with red-and-white patterned wallpaper.
The installation "The Elephant in the Room" was reproduced — without a live elephant — for the Cologne exhibitionImage: GRUSS

Visitors get to see quite a bit for their €20 ($21.35) entrance fee: nearly 200 works ranging from street art, sculptures, videos and installations are displayed across some 400 square meters (4,306 sq. feet).

Some of Banksy's most spectacular installations are recreated in fifteen rooms, such as "The Elephant in the Room." The animal, decorated with wallpaper patterns, once stood in the middle of a Los Angeles gallery, in a replica 1950-era living room, highlighting poverty and injustice in the world. At the opening, there was a real elephant in the room, as well as a real Angelina Jolie — and maybe even a real Banksy, who knows?

A photo from the exhibition "The Mystery of Banksy — A Genius Mind"" in Cologne, with an installation showing an artist's studio with a hooded figure. Visitors can be seen in the foreground.
The artist is (almost) present: Is this what Banksy's studio really looks like?Image: I. Dyachenko/DW

The Cologne show has a room that's meant to depict the artist's studio, featuring a hoodie-clad figure sitting at a table. This tableau was probably copied from one of the exhibition rooms of the authorized show in Glasgow. So it's possibly how Banksy's studio actually looks.

Does Banksy know?

But what does Banksy himself think of commercial projects like this? Does he not care? Is he outraged and only unable to protest because doing otherwise would risk his anonymity? Or is this kind of fairground Banksy show a new prank by the inventive artist?

On the left, a photo of Banksy's "Girl With Balloon' stencil in an ornate gold frame; on the right, the same picture, half-shredded."
Iconic: Banksy's "Girl With Balloon" before and after self-shreddingImage: cofo-entertainment

Fittingly, the organizers want to neither confirm nor deny such speculation. All they will say is that they are in contact with the managers of the "Banksy" brand.

And they're directing a portion of the profits to the Banksy Foundation, to finance, among other things, the Louise Michel rescue boat. Named after the French anarchist Michel, the 30-meter (98-foot) former yacht and its crew of ten have been rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean since 2020.

This article has been adapted from German.

The exhibition runs through March 17, 2024.