This year alone, more than 19,500 migrants have successfully fled war-torn Libya, embarking on a risky voyage across the Mediterranean Sea on cramped lifeboats to reach European entry points in Italy and Malta. Unfortunately, not every migrant makes it—according to the International Organization for Migration, Libyan authorities have intercepted more than 7,600 escapees, who then face persecution and human rights violations at detention camps upon their return. The coronavirus has only made matters worse, causing a 149 percent uptick in migrant arrivals on Italian shores.
Sea Watch, a German NGO that patrols the Mediterranean to rescue migrants, often embarks on search-and-rescue missions. Aiding its recent migration efforts is a bright pink motor yacht commissioned by Banksy, who has long championed social causes beyond his politically tinged street murals. The anonymous British artist first announced his intention to purchase a migrant rescue boat this past fall, and ended up acquiring a former French Navy vessel, named Louise Michel after the French feminist anarchist, using proceeds from recent sales of artworks about the migrant crisis. After learning that Italian authorities impounded a ship helmed by Pia Klemp, a German biologist and Sea Watch captain who recently made headlines after an online petition protested her potential 20-year prison sentence for rescuing more than 1,000 migrants from the Mediterranean, Banksy offered to replace it.
According to The Guardian, Klemp initially thought Banksy’s offer was a joke. “I’ve read about your story in the papers. You sound like a badass,” he wrote in an email. “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?” Klemp then assembled a team of ten anti-fascist, anti-racist activists to spearhead the Louise Michel, which discreetly set sail from the Spanish seaport of Burriana on August 18 to rescue 89 distressed migrants stranded on a rubber dinghy in the middle of the Mediterranean. Banksy’s involvement in the mission has been limited to providing financial support.
Louise Michel differs from most NGO rescue vessels. For one, Banksy spray-painted its 100-foot-long exterior in splotches of bright pink paint using a fire extinguisher and emblazoned the word “rescue” on its hull. The vessel also reaches a top speed of 27 knots—enough to likely outrun the slower ships captained by Libyan officials before they “get to boats with refugees and pull them back to detention camps,” says Klemp, who pledged to keep the voyage a secret out of fear that press coverage would alert the authorities.
Notably, Banksy emblazoned an artwork onto Louise Michel’s exterior that depicts a lifevest-clad girl holding a heart-shaped safety buoy. It’s a maritime nod to the artist’s famed Girl With Balloon, a series of stencil murals used multiple times to support social campaigns. Some liken Girl With Balloon to the iconic girl in red from Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic Schindler’s List, a black-and-white film whose sole use of color is the girl’s red coat. Spielberg has commented that the red signifies how high-ranking members of the U.S. government knew about the Holocaust, yet did nothing to stop it. The comparison feels apt—since Louise Michel’s rescue mission ended, Banksy and Kemp have both accused European officials of deliberately ignoring distress calls from migrants.
That very issue presented itself in Klemp’s mission, which ultimately took on more passengers than it could handle. After successfully rescuing the original group of 89 migrants since setting sail, Louise Michel encountered another ship with 130 escapees, who joined the group. With more than 200 people aboard, Klemp’s crew could no longer steer the ship due to overcrowding, and issued a distress call. Italian authorities near the island of Lampedusa, a longtime European gateway for migrants, took in 49 of the most vulnerable passengers and transferred the rest to a different humanitarian ship, which reportedly arrived at the port of Palermo, Sicily, on September 2.
On a video of the rescue mission posted to Instagram, Banksy commented that European authorities often fail to act when faced with distress calls from rescue missions. “Like most people who make it in the art world, I bought a yacht to cruise the Med,” he says. “It’s a French navy vessel we converted into a lifeboat because EU authorities deliberately ignore distress calls from ‘non-Europeans.’” Louise Michel’s crew echoed his concerns, urging EU member states to open their ports to migrants: “The obligation to rescue at sea is an obligation under international maritime law. This obligation applies to every person in danger at sea—regardless of nationality, reason for flight, or legal status.”
Banksy has said “there aren’t many situations where a street artist is much use,” but it seems that he has spent his entire career dismantling such notions. He often infuses his signature stenciled murals with satirical wit and dark political humor, shedding light on the greatest humanitarian issues of our time. As his career has ballooned, so has the activist ambitions of his work. He first highlighted the plight of refugees in 2003 by stenciling works on the West Bank barrier in Bethlehem, returning 14 years later to open the Walled Off Hotel near the rubble-strewn stretch. He donated wood and supplies from his monumental 2015 installation Dismaland to a refugee camp in Calais, France, to help build shelters. Recently, he auctioned off a trio of seascapes altered to include empty life jackets—symbolizing those who died crossing the Mediterranean—to raise nearly $3 million for a Bethlehem hospital.
Though each of these works are stunning displays of activism, it seems that Banksy has outdone himself this time. Writing for The Art Newspaper, Anny Shaw considers Banksy’s funding of Louise Michel perhaps his greatest work yet. Considering the tangible human impact of the mission—and its potential to inspire similar action from those wielding influence within an insular, inflated art market—it’s hard to disagree.