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Privately-owned Banksy art exhibition hits London

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The artwork Love Is In The Air / Flower Thrower (2003) by Banksy on display in the exhibition "Building Castles in the Sky" in Basel, Switzerland, on March 1, 2021.
The artwork Love Is In The Air / Flower Thrower (2003) by Banksy on display in the exhibition "Building Castles in the Sky" in Basel, Switzerland, on March 1, 2021.   -   Copyright  Georgios Kefalas/Keystone via AP   -  

In typical Banksy style, graffitied signs on red brick walls outside an exhibition of his work are sparking plenty of curiosity in London.

Over 90 of the street artist's works - including originals and prints - have gone on display in a 12,000 square foot underground space in Covent Garden.

Organisers are keen to stress this exhibition was not authorised by the notoriously anonymous artist, so has been put together via loans from personal collections, making it the world's largest collection of privately owned Banksy art.

As Sean Sweeney, one of the producers of The Art of Banksy explains, the show has already toured other parts of the world, but had its London debut delayed due to the pandemic:

"There was an opportunity last year of course to bring it to London and we had planned to open last March in a different location, but obviously COVID somewhat took over and a bit like London's been in hibernation this collection has been in hibernation since then."

The Art of Banksy focuses on authenticated works dated between 1997 and 2008 - the period where Banksy is widely considered to have produced his most recognisable works.

As well as some of the most famous and reproduced works, such as Girl with Balloon, Rude Copper and Happy Chopper, there are also rare pieces which many London visitors will be seeing for the first time.

"There's a piece called Brace Yourself which is a very, very large canvas which has not actually been seen very much in the UK at all before so far. And we've placed that very much at the centre of our exhibition," says Sweeney, describing a 245 by 182-centimetre work portraying the Grim Reaper riding a dodgem, which is one of the largest ever created by Banksy.

"So there will be some well known and there'll be some surprises as well and I think also what the exhibition in a sense also underlies is the fact that Banksy is also very, very funny. And I think we all need that bit of subversive humour the way things have been going recently."

Sweeney goes on to add that due to restrictions resulting from COVID-19 most of the exhibition was organised virtually and over video calls.

"We've used a lot of tech, we had to do 3D scans of the building and the curation team couldn't come over because of travel restrictions and so forth," he says.

"But just like everyone else it's been a virtual world really and it's so wonderful to actually now see it all come together over the last couple of weeks."

One collector whose works appear in the show, and who also helped pull the exhibition together through his contacts, is Ian Ellis.

"I was predominantly there at the beginning of his London sojourn as it were. And I met collectors then and it's a very small environment," he explains.

He says since Banksy still isn't officially recognised by the mainstream art world so private collectors wanted a way to share more of his work with the public.

But he adds that it's probably only a matter of time before major galleries start to take Banksy artwork more seriously.

"Because his images are so striking and he's become so iconic there is becoming a level of acceptance, and I wouldn't be surprised in the next five years if he doesn't migrate to the Tate Modern, to MoMA, into their collections. And when that happens the level of collector you get then moves from someone of a regular basis to a collector who's going to stick it in a bonded warehouse and you'll never get the chance to see it again," he says.

The Art of Banksy has already travelled to Melbourne, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Auckland, Toronto, Miami, Gothenburg and Sydney and been seen by 750,000 visitors.

It opens to the public in London on Thursday 20 May 2021.