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Keep It Real

Keep It Real
tagged 'BANKSY' (on the turnover edge)
spray paint and emulsion on canvas
10 x 8in. (25.5 x 20.2cm.)
Executed in 2002, this work is from a series
Sotheby's S 2 Gallery, London.
Private Collection.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's Hong Kong, 1 April 2019, lot 509.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Further Details
This work is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity issued by Pest Control.

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Anna Touzin
Anna Touzin Specialist, Head of Day Sale

Lot Essay

Known for his acerbic observations and subversive tactics, Banksy is the art world’s agitator par excellence. Set against a brilliant orange ground, the present work’s forlorn protagonist sports a sandwich board that reads ‘Keep it real’, a punchy rebuke at odds with his downtrodden countenance. The work was executed in 2002: the same year that the artist produced his seminal mural, commissioned by a nightclub in Brighton, depicting ten chimpanzees adorned with boards reading ‘Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge’. Two years earlier, depictions of anthropomorphised primates had covered the walls of his first ‘show’ on London’s Rivington Street exhibition; the ape would go on to become one of his most iconic motifs. These were pivotal years for Banksy, marking the start of his meteoric rise to acclaim and his early embrace of the stencil medium that would become his signature. Keep It Real solidifies this transition and makes clear his rebellious vision.

Keep It Real offers a contemporary take on singerie, the pictorial genre in which stylish monkeys engage in human activities. Scenes of monkeys cast within the human realm began to appear in the sixteenth century, and were later explored by a variety of artists including Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Jan Brueghel the Elder and the Younger, and Jean-Antoine Watteau. These painters employed monkeys to critique society and its trimmings, a mantle that Banksy has taken up with zeal. ‘I use monkeys in my pictures for a lot of reasons,’ he has explained, ‘guerrilla tactics, cheeky monkeys, the fact that we share 98.5 per cent of our DNA with them. If I want to say something about people, I use a monkey’ (Banksy quoted in F. McClymont, ‘Cheeky Monkey’, The Independent, 27 May 2000). As with so many of his motifs and characters, Banksy has reincarnated the primate in various guises, famously replacing British parliamentarians with chimpanzees in his 2009 painting Devolved Parliament, which lambasted England’s political class.

While Banksy’s initial graffiti work was mostly done freehand, by the time he created Keep It Real, he had begun to use stencils as his primary medium, blasting his chimpanzees onto the side of Tube trains and other locations across London. His epiphany had occurred some years earlier in Bristol when, evading the police, he hid underneath a lorry and took notice of the lettering on its side. ‘As I lay there listening to the cops on the tracks,’ he recalled, ‘I realised I had to cut my painting time in half or give it up altogether’ (Banksy, Wall and Piece, London 2005, p. 13). Pre-cutting his stencils allowed Banksy to work rapidly and without detection while simultaneously lending his images a wry, at times caustic edge. The present work shares the raw immediacy of his urban graffiti, its spray-painted surface simmering with this same urgency.

Since achieving widespread recognition, the world’s most notorious provocateur has expanded his global footprint. His works address burning issues facing humanity, from climate change and immigration to the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. Like William Hogarth’s engravings, the Dadaists’ response to the horrors of war, and Andy Warhol’s cutting eye, Banksy’s art, too, is rooted in the public consciousness; it is in and of the world, attending to the questions that need uncovering, the zeitgeist and its debris. Unlike so many of his predecessors, however, Banky’s works are conceived not as commentary but actions meant to disrupt the status quo and effect change. By using comprehensible motifs paired with pithy messages, Banksy ensures that his biting critiques are legible to all. His belief that art should be for everyone is underscored by a no-compromise, anarchic ethos—a Banksy may appear at any moment, in any locale—but the medium is the message, too. In Keep It Real, the artist sets the stage for a practice that would speak truth to power, give voice to the powerless, and, ultimately, spread joy.

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