A long-lost painting by Banksy has resurfaced in a swanky art gallery in Tel Aviv, an hour’s drive and a world away from the concrete wall in the occupied West Bank where it was initially sprayed.
The relocation of the piece — which depicts a slingshot-toting rat — raises questions about the removal of artwork from occupied territory from where they were intended to be displayed.
The painting initially appeared near the separation barrier in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem and was one of several works created in secret by the British graffiti artist around 2007. They employed Banksy’s trademark absurdist and dystopian imagery to protest against Israel’s decades-long occupation of territories the Palestinians want for a future state.
Now, it resides at the Urban Gallery in the heart of the financial district in Tel Aviv, surrounded by glass and steel skyscrapers.
“This is the story of David and Goliath,” said Koby Abergel, an Israeli art dealer who purchased the painting, without elaborating on the analogy. He said the gallery was simply displaying the work, leaving its interpretation to others.
Associated Press could not independently confirm the authenticity of the piece, but Abergel said the cracks and scrapes in the concrete serve as “a fingerprint”, which proves it is the same piece on the artist’s website.
The 70-kilometre journey it made from the West Bank to Tel Aviv is shrouded in secrecy. The 408-kilogram concrete slab would have had to pass through Israel’s serpentine barrier and at least one military checkpoint — daily features of Palestinian life and targets of Banksy’s biting satire.
Abergel, who is a partner with the Tel Aviv gallery, said he bought the concrete slab from a Palestinian associate in Bethlehem. He declined to disclose the sum he paid or identify the seller, but insisted on the deal’s legality.
The graffiti artwork was spray-painted onto a concrete block, which was part of an abandoned Israeli army position in Bethlehem, next to a soaring concrete section of the separation barrier.
Some time later, the painting was itself subjected to graffiti by someone who obscured the painting and scrawled “RIP Bansky Rat” on the block. Palestinian residents cut out the painting and kept it in private residences until earlier this year, Abergel said.
He said the relocation involved delicate negotiations with his Palestinian associate and careful restoration to remove the acrylic paint sprayed over Banksy’s work. The massive block was then enclosed in a steel frame so it could be lifted onto a flatbed truck and rolled through a checkpoint, until it arrived in Tel Aviv in the middle of the night.
It was not possible to independently confirm his account of its journey.
The piece now stands on an ornately patterned tile floor, surrounded by other contemporary art. Baruch Kashkash, the gallery’s owner, said the roughly two-square-metre block was so heavy it had to be brought inside by a crane and could barely be moved from the doorway.
Israel controls all access to the West Bank, and Palestinians require Israeli permits to travel in or out and to import and export goods.
Abergel told AP the artwork’s move was not coordinated with the Israeli military and that his Palestinian associates, whom he declined to name, were responsible for moving it into Israel and crossing through military checkpoints. He said he has no plans to sell the piece.
Scrolled through the gallery for pictures of Banksy's Walled Off Hotel guesthouse in Bethlehem
According to the international treaty governing cultural property to which Israel is a signatory, 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 instance.
“This is theft of the property of the Palestinian people,” said Jeries Qumsieh, a spokesman for the Palestinian Tourism Ministry. “These were paintings by an international artist for Bethlehem, for Palestine, and for visitors to Bethlehem and Palestine. So transferring them, manipulating them and stealing them is definitely an illegal act.”
The Israeli military and the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli Defense Ministry body responsible for coordinating civilian 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 depicting a girl conducting a body search on an Israeli soldier, another showing a dove wearing a flak jacket and a masked protester hurling a bouquet of flowers. He also designed the Walled Off Hotel guesthouse in Bethlehem, which is filled with his artwork.
A representative for Banksy did not respond to requests for comment by AP.
This is not the first time the street artist’s work has been lifted from the West Bank. In 2008, two other paintings — Wet Dog and Stop and Search — were removed from the walls of a bus shelter and butcher shop in Bethlehem. They were eventually bought by galleries in the US and the UK where they were exhibited in 2011.
Abergel says it’s up to viewers to draw their own conclusions about the artwork and its implications.
“We brought it to the main street of Tel Aviv to be shown to the audience and to show his messages,” said Abergel. “He should be happy with it.”