On Banksy and the Prophetic Imagination (Amsterdam, pt. 2)

Travel Virgin's Playlist, Track 3:  A Change is Gonna' Come (Sam Cooke):

“There’ve been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time comin’,
But I know, oh-oo-oh, a change gonna come, oh yes, it will.”

My first night in Amsterdam was as disorienting as it was glorious, but only my closest friends and future children can know the details. I’d always heard that you learn a lot about yourself travelling alone. So much of our identity is built on our context: what you do at home, who your friends think you are, how you want to present yourself. So when you’re in a place where no one knows you—no one really sees you—who are you? What I learned about myself in my first night in Amsterdam kept me from sleeping well; but, I only had one day left, and I need not waste it thinking about myself.

I went out for a Friday morning brunch at a Brazilian restaurant called Bakers and Roasters: A Cuban sandwich with a side of plantain chips and a mimosa. As I mentioned before, this was the best Cuban sandwich I’d ever had in my life! For a moment I was so ecstatic to be a little buzzed on a Friday morning, surrounded by good company from around the world, enjoying a nice meal, without any obligations for the day—that’s living! So, I did what any millennial would do while enjoying the real world: tell Facebook ;).

I had a flight to catch, and so I thought I’d make my way to the airport. But as I began to head to the train, I remembered the Banksy-Warhol exhibit happening at the Moco museum. “You should go,” I thought to myself. It was an oddly strong sentiment. I should drink 5-8 glasses of water a day. I should pay my phone bill. I should see the Banksy exhibit?

Well...for about 2 months now I've been literally dragging a solid granite white boulder around Pasadena (with the help of some very generous allies) as a symbol of the weight that racial injustice has laid on the black psyche. That's all I can really say about it right now, because it deserves (and is getting it's own series of blogs). I didn't mean to become a performance artist. It just happened. But now it's probably the form of expression that I'm most interested: symbolic acts that are disruptive and compelling. To be honest: visual art has never really moved me very much. It’s not something I understand intuitively, but there was one thing I knew about Banksy: he knows how to make a statement. And since I’ve stumbled into my own practice of  socially-concerned performance art, it seemed imperative that I take advantage of the opportunity to muse at the work of a master. So, yeah: Going to  the Banksy exhibit was a must. 

It was life-changing.

I remember being immediately overwhelmed by so many of the pieces. I’ll post about one, and then I’ll let you browse through the gallery of images I captured (as best I can) on my iPhone. It is one of Banksy's most famous: 

So, I've this seen image a ton, but I needed help interpreting it. I got that it was ironic: the guy has a bouquet of flowers where one would expect a smoke bomb or molitov cocktail, but I wasn't sure what to make of that. So, the descriptions in the exhibit were extremely helpful for a novice in art criticism like myself: "The flowers themselves show a hope for peaceful resolution of conflicts. Simply put, wage peace."  

Those very last two words really moved me, because he was able to both critique our culture and to suggest an alternative way of being, with just one image. In this way, Banksy's work seems to participate (to some degree) in what Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann calls "prophetic imagination". Bruggemann suggests that prophets are basically critics of the short-comings of dominant culture, but they are also dreamers about what the world could be like. They grieve--often publicly--over the the social injustices that we accept as normal, oftentimes commanding our attention to see the world as it actually is. But they also share compelling visions of the world that could emerge, if we could only imagine it: 

They will hammer their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will no longer fight against nation,
nor train for war anymore.
— Isaiah 2:4

Basically, prophets change the way we see the world. Their imagination speaks to ours. And they usually do this artistically: through poetry, song, drama, and symbolic acts. 

So, in seeing Banksy's work, and being exposed to the conversations about those pieces through the guided tour, I felt challenged. I've been very good (I think) about conveying the pain of people of color through live broadcasting, posting articles and videos and resources, starting a reading group, and organizing my own peaceful protests. I have grieved publicly, and more grieving to do when I get back to the states. But, I'm now longing for two things: (1) to get skilled at creating those grievous images that cut through the numbness encouraged by the dominant culture; and (2) for visions that amaze and energize us with promises of a new world that can emerge, if we can first imagine it. I'm praying for the latter, because we need hope (which shouldn't be confused with 'solutions'). Without hope, there'll be no point in or energy for this fight for a better world.

You can see the pieces that moved me in the gallery below. I won't caption them, because they should be allowed to speak to you on their own terms.