On 6 May 2020, during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a painting appeared at University Hospital Southampton. In crisp, linear detail, it showed a young boy playing with a selection of superhero dolls. In the painting, Batman and Spiderman lie discarded in a bin; instead, the child clutches a new idol. A masked, uniformed nurse soars to the rescue, her cape fluttering and arm outstretched towards the sky. The picture was accompanied by a note: ‘Thanks for all you’re doing. I hope this brightens the place up a bit, even if it’s only black and white.’
Having delighted staff and patients for the past ten months, Banksy’s gift to the hospital now comes to auction. Banksy has gifted Game Changer to Southampton Hospitals Charity and proceeds from the sale of the artwork will be used to support the wellbeing of University Hospital Southampton staff and patients as well as benefitting associated health organisations and charities across the UK that enhance the care and treatment provided by the NHS. At a time when the world has come to rely more than ever on the bravery and resilience of its healthcare workers, the image of the boy and his new hero speaks to an unprecedented global zeitgeist. Equally, the scene’s quiet innocence captures the simple, universal values that have come to the fore during the pandemic—family, home and time spent with loved ones. Up until now, Game Changer has only been seen in person by frontline medical staff and those admitted for treatment: the auction marks its first public appearance outside the hospital.
Coming to prominence in the 1990s, Banksy has long been a chronicler of his time. His works have engaged with some of the twenty-first century’s most complex issues, offering stark moments of social observation and critique. He has painted on the West Bank barrier wall and on the streets of Gaza; his works have appeared at the Louvre, the Glastonbury Festival, London’s Southbank and the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. He has taken on giant corporations such as Disney and Tesco; he has reworked Leonardo, Monet and Van Gogh. His works have addressed everything from police brutality, knife crime and political tensions to climate change, consumerism and Brexit. Others—such as the girl hula-hooping with a bicycle wheel that appeared last year outside a Nottingham beauty salon—have simply brought joy to local neighbourhoods. Underpinning his practice is a belief that art, when dispersed freely among society, has the power to change the world for the better.
Game Changer appeared at a time when people across the world rallied in support of frontline medical staff: from doorstep cheers and rounds of applause, to rainbows painted on household windows. The nurse’s red cross— the only hint of colour in an otherwise monochrome composition—serves as a symbol of the pandemic’s international impact. At the same time, the image of the young boy at play is one of universal poignancy, capturing the renewed focus on domestic and familial life that has come to define this period. Intricately rendered in oil, with the expressive detail of a children’s book illustration, the work depicts a moment of pure innocence, charting the play of light and shadow across the boy’s face, hair and clothes. Children have long featured in Banksy’s artworks—most famously his iconic Girl with Balloon—frequently functioning as cautionary symbols of damage to the next generation. Here, however, the child seems to look towards a brighter dawn, safe in the knowledge that real superheroes do walk among us.
Banksy began his career hiding from the eyes of the police as he graffitied his way around the UK: first in his native Bristol, and subsequently in London and beyond. His early freehand works gave way to his signature use of hand-cut stencils, inspired by observing the lettering on the underside of a bin lorry, where he had taken refuge from the police as a teenager. At the same time, as demonstrated by Game Changer, he continued to paint freehand on canvas, working with precision and dexterity. The pandemic has not put a stop to Banksy’s graffiti work: in July 2020, he took to the London Underground, disguised as a cleaner, where he spray painted a series of rats encouraging people to wear face masks. In December, a new work entitled Aachoo—depicting a woman sneezing—appeared on the side of a house in Bristol.
The anarchic edge to Banksy’s practice, however, is ultimately a by-product of his belief that art should be for everyone: that it should reflect real concerns, and speak the truth to power. In this sense, the artist operates in a tradition that extends from William Hogarth’s eighteenth-century British satire to Grayson Perry’s ceramic reflections on contemporary Britain: practices that addressed socio-political issues as they unfolded in real time. The performative aspect of his work, meanwhile, might be understood as part of a history that has its roots in the conceptual ‘Happenings’ of Joseph Beuys and others during the 1950s and ’60s. At the same time, Banksy’s celebration of alternative superheroes in Game Changer invites comparison with the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat—an artist who similarly adopted the streets as his canvas. In 1980s New York, Basquiat sought to celebrate black cultural figures in a predominantly white-dominated artistic landscape, casting jazz musicians, boxers and even himself in the guise of kings, deities and heroic icons.
In a time of rapid and unsteady change, Game Changer ultimately offers an image of hope. Irreverence, parody and calls to arms are absent: instead, it represents a personal tribute to those who continue to turn the tide of the pandemic. Its style is one of nostalgic purity, yet its message looks firmly towards to the future. As an artwork, however, it will remain forever a symbol of its time: a reminder of the world’s real game changers, and of the vital work they perform.