A long-lost Banksy painting has resurfaced in a chic Tel Aviv art gallery, an hour’s drive and worlds away from the concrete wall in the occupied West Bank where it was originally sprayed.
The relocation of the piece – which depicts a rat armed with a slingshot – raises questions about the removal of artworks from occupied territory where they should be exhibited.
The painting originally appeared near the Separation Wall in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem and was one of several works the British graffiti artist secretly created around 2007. They used Banksy’s trademark absurd and dystopian imagery to protest Israel’s decades-long occupation of territories the Palestinians want for a future state.
Now it is located in the Urban Gallery in the heart of Tel Aviv’s financial district, surrounded by glass and steel skyscrapers.
“This is the story of David and Goliath,” said Koby Abergel, an Israeli art dealer who bought the painting without going into the analogy. He said the gallery is simply exhibiting the work and letting others interpret it.
Associated Press was unable to independently confirm the piece’s authenticity, but Abergel said the cracks and scratches in the concrete serve as a “fingerprint,” proving it’s the same piece on the artist’s website.
The 70-kilometer journey from the West Bank to Tel Aviv is secret. The 408-kilogram concrete slab would have had to pass through Israel’s serpentine barrier and at least one military checkpoint – everyday features of Palestinian life and targets of Banksy’s scathing satire.
Abergel, who is a partner of the gallery in Tel Aviv, said he bought the concrete slab from a Palestinian worker in Bethlehem. He declined to disclose the sum he paid or identify the seller, but insisted on the legality of the deal.
The graffiti artwork was sprayed onto a concrete block that formed part of an abandoned Israeli army position in Bethlehem, next to a towering concrete section of the Separation Wall.
Some time later, the painting itself was graffitied by someone who covered the painting and scrawled “RIP Bansky Rat” on the block. Palestinian residents cut out the painting and kept it in private homes until earlier this year, Abergel said.
He said the move will involve delicate negotiations with his Palestinian associate and a painstaking restoration to remove the acrylic paint that was sprayed over Banksy’s work. The massive block was then encased in a steel frame so it could be lifted onto a flatbed truck and wheeled through a checkpoint before arriving in Tel Aviv in the middle of the night.
It has not been possible to independently confirm his itinerary.
The piece now stands on an intricately patterned tile floor surrounded by other contemporary art. Baruch Kashkash, the gallery’s owner, said the two-square-meter block was so heavy that it had to be brought inside with a crane and could hardly be moved away from the entrance.
Israel controls all access to the West Bank, and Palestinians require Israeli permits to enter or exit the country and to import and export goods.
Butgel tells AP the artwork’s move was not coordinated with the Israeli military and that his Palestinian collaborators, whose names he declined to identify, were responsible for bringing it to Israel and passing through military checkpoints. He said he has no plans to sell the play.
Scroll through the gallery for images of Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel guest house in Bethlehem
According to the international treaty on cultural property to which Israel has signed, occupying powers must prevent the removal of cultural property from occupied territories. It remains unclear exactly how the 1954 Hague Convention would apply in this case.
“This is theft of the Palestinian people’s property,” said Jeries Qumsieh, a spokesman for the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism. “These were paintings by an international artist for Bethlehem, for Palestine and for visitors to Bethlehem and Palestine. So transferring, manipulating and stealing them is definitely an illegal act.”
The Israeli military and the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israel Defense Ministry’s branch responsible for coordinating civil affairs with the Palestinians, said they had no knowledge of the artwork or its relocation.
Banksy has created numerous artworks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in recent years, including one showing a girl strip-searching an Israeli soldier, another showing a dove wearing a flak jacket and a masked protester hurling a bouquet of flowers . He also designed the guest house of the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, which is filled with his artwork.
A Banksy representative did not respond to requests for comment from AP.
This isn’t the first time the street artist’s work has been lifted from the West Bank. 2008 two more paintings — Wet dog and stop and search – have been removed from the walls of a bus shelter and butcher shop in Bethlehem. They were eventually purchased by galleries in the US and UK, where they were exhibited in 2011.
Abergel says it is up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the artwork and its implications.
“We took it to Tel Aviv’s main street to show it to the audience and show its messages,” Abergel said. “He should be happy with that.”
Updated August 06, 2022 at 9:30 am