Current Issue #488

Modern Times: These walls have a voice

Modern Times: These walls have a voice

Are Adelaide’s walls in need of an influx of new voices in street art?

Banksy provokes and pleases. It is difficult not to smile at his brilliance, and agree with the sentiments expressed in his work. Considered together, his works are social and political commentary of significance, despite the cultivated simplicity of message. The striking but simple way in which a problem is depicted somehow also suggests its solution: don’t do it, or, do the opposite! Few issues now escape his impressive range. Poverty, despair, overuse of technology, romance, war and peace are addressed in his work, which is without parallel.

A native of Bristol, Banksy’s art has appeared in a variety of other cities, in England, France, North America and elsewhere. How would he be received in Adelaide, a barren landscape for political graffiti yet with a few remarkable murals? The paint that flows from the brush of Elizabeth Close, for example, drips with political meaning. A famous piece, Burnt Scrub, tells the story of colonialism of Aboriginal land. Bushfires, like colonialism, can devastate, their impact far-reaching. Her art is subtle, elegant, beautiful, perhaps a reflection on the city which accommodates much of her work.

Close’s art, when compared to the immediate impact of political graffiti, is aesthetically pleasing, its form less controversial and confronting. As a political statement, it is a slow burn. It needs to be sought, explained, understood. The walls of Adelaide lack a voice that is confronting, edgy, compelling, immediate. Our walls are not alone in lacking such a voice, which is inconsistent with the sentiment of these modern times, which oscillates between resignation and rage.

The paste up work of Peter Drew is perhaps Adelaide’s best-known political street art

One would think that a generation raised on social media would be capable of succinctly expressing its sentiments. In terms of brevity, political graffiti is Twitter’s predecessor. The author has one sentence, perhaps two, to be heard above the din. But similarities between the two forms of communication end there. The basic algorithms of Twitter encourage communication between people who share the same views. Opinions are shouted down empty laneways. Political graffiti is written in public spaces thus has a wider audience.

In France, the prevailing sentiment appears to be rage. Once, political graffiti in France held an almost literary quality. Inscriptions on walls during the 1968 student protests held a literary quality. Phrases like “you don’t fall in love with economic growth” and “run, comrade, for the old world is behind you” reflected an attitude and described the moment. The language of protest that adorns the walls in France today expresses violent, obscene or homophobic sentiments. They may curse, but at least they still speak. At Australia’s walls were once a political forum. This is no longer the case.

Street art does not have to be political. It can mark a moment in time, pay homage to individuals that have marked a community. Living in southern France in the years following its first World Cup victory in 1998, I was aware of a formidable aura that surrounded Zinedine Zidane and once had the chance to visit an imposing mural that captures his intensity and celebrates his origins. At the top right-hand corner of the of 150 m2 mural, bold white letters proclaim: ‘Made in Marseille’.

Other soccer players and managers have been honoured by murals in communities in which they were raised. There is a striking tribute of Gabriel Jesus on the walls of Jardim Peri where he was raised. A mural of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp now appears in the Baltic Triangle in Liverpool, an industrial zone repurposed to encourage creative industries. I have longed asked why our walls do not tell the stories of individuals who have helped shape our communities. A mural of Fos Williams in Port Adelaide would be an appropriate tribute to an individual that contributed much to the sporting club on which a community was built.

Another memorable piece that appeared on the walls of France in 1968: “the walls have ears, your ears have walls”. Walls indeed have ears, eyes, and a voice. Our walls have been silenced, removing an avenue through which we can be exposed to different perspectives on our present, and different visions of our future.


Header image:
A Banksy mural in Camden (Photo: Shutterstock)

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