Ukraine debates what to do with ‘extremely powerful’ Banksy murals

Banksy makes an unpublicised trip to Ukraine

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Ukraine has to decide what to do with seven Banksy murals graffitied near the capital on buildings destined to be demolished, with some experts determined for them to remain where they are, while others fear the paintings could be preserved. The debate, which has been accelerated after a group tried to steal one of the images from the town of Hostomel, about 15 miles outside Kyiv, in December, has divided the cultural voices in Ukraine as Russia makes extensive efforts to eradicate the defending nation’s identity in part through the destruction of art.  

Ukraine’s deputy culture minister, Katerina Chuyeva, said she believed the “extremely powerful” murals “should be preserved”. 

She argued there was a cultural obligation to safeguard the relics for the future generations of Ukraine and its allies, pointing to the preservation of objects from the second world war and the fall of the Berlin Wall as examples of why Ukraine should follow suit. 

Ms Chuyeva described walking past one of the seven Banksy murals, the image of two children painted as if they are on a seesaw, with an actual tank trap on the road replacing the typical playground structure, as immensely impactful. 

She said: “I realised it should be preserved. The artistic expression is extremely powerful. You feel and understand its importance.” 

But leaving the murals where they have been painted does not seem to be an option. 

Banksy drew a number of the images on buildings badly affected by Russian missile strikes or the occupation of Chechen fighters during Russia’s attempt to capture Kyiv at the start of the invasion last year. 

Those buildings are not able to be rebuilt without first being entirely demolished, meaning the Banksy murals would be lost. 

This problem has now opened up a debate in Ukraine about whether to cut the images out of the buildings. 

Bart Gruyaert, co-founder of Neo-Eco, a french charity that is restoring 316 apartments and six buildings around Kyiv, described one of the Bansky murals, which was stolen in December, as “brilliant”, adding that people saw it as a “monument to their suffering”. 

The image in question was of a woman in a gas mask and dressing gown holding a red fire extinguisher. She is standing next to a real flame-blackened window.

Mr Gruyaert said: “Banksy is a little ray of sunshine. He has a different way of looking at things, which is elevated rather than brutal. The mural is brilliant.” 

He added: “A lot of people see it as a monument to their suffering. It’s long-lasting. Art travels through time.”

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On December 2, a group of men chiselled the dressing gown woman from the side of a scorched wall in Hostomel. When challenged by a local person, they claimed to be representatives of Neo-Eco. 

Five men were subsequently arrested, of which one is under suspicion of leading the heist and attempting to sell the mural and “use the proceeds as he saw fit”. 

The French government is funding the £27 million (€30m) costs for the pioneering Hostomel reconstruction project. The local community must now decide whether to back a plan to sell the mural, in consultation with the town’s mayor. Other suburbs are holding similar discussions.

The Banksy artwork is currently in police custody and has been declared a cultural property valued at £205,000. 

It is up for debate whether the other pieces can be protected from theft or whether the murals can be properly exhibited in a city under regular Russian attack. 

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