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Turf War, 2003


Turf War, 2003
Oil and emulsion on canvas
254.5 x 254.5 cm (100 1/2 x 100 1/2 inches)

Turf War, London, July 2003

A pivotal piece in Banksy’s provocative oeuvre, Turf War was the centerpiece of the artist’s bold eponymous second solo exhibition, which marked his breakthrough, taking the British art scene by storm in July 2003. Encompassing the anti-establishment wit and satirical humor integral to the very best of Banksy’s output, the present work depicts a portrait of Sir Winston Churchill on a colossal scale. Churchill is a figure iconized by many for his successful premiership that played a part in Britain’s triumph in the Second World War and criticized by others for his fervently monarchist and imperialist views.
Yousuf Karsh, Winston Churchill, 1941a
Artwork: © Estate of Yousuf Karsh

While clearly referencing Yousuf Karsh’s instantly recognizable portrait of Churchill that once became emblematic of British defiance against fascism, Turf War – executed on canvas in Banksy’s signature stenciled style – subverts the pathos of the original image by portraying the British political icon with a green mohican made from turfed grass. Born out of Banksy’s rebellious visual language, this irreverent depiction continues to hijack the physical and conceptual spaces that, in Banksy’s own words, do not belong to him, unsettling the social order upheld by an elite class. Once displayed in a former East London warehouse alongside strikingly controversial exhibits, such as live animals painted as police and concentration camp inmates, Turf War was at the heart of an ephemeral, surrealist three-day happening that, much like Banksy’s famous self-shredding work, became a cultural phenomenon. The show’s legendarily bold absurdism, brazen humor and mischief are perfectly encapsulated in this work, cementing Banksy, as far as the elusiveness of his persona allows, as an undaunted social commentator and one of the most significant artists of our time.

Banksy, Turf War, London, July 2003
By amalgamating multiple visual references into a powerful postmodern image, Turf War draws not only upon the iconic photograph of Churchill but also on the famous image of the statesman’s statue transformed as part of Guerrilla Gardening by ‘Reclaim The Street’ in Parliament Square on May Day 2000. A protester was sentenced to thirty days in prison for defacing the statue by placing a turf mohican on Churchill’s head, applying red paint to give an illusion that blood was dripping from his mouth and covering the plinth in graffiti. The sanctioning of the protester’s act by the state resonates with the illicit element of Banksy’s own graffiti, which often generated a quick police response in his native Bristol in the 1990s. In order to create his renegade site-specific work, nodding at Warhol’s Pop-art portraits and ready-mades, the artist prioritized speed in his creative process, developing his staple stenciling technique that allowed him to make his public interventions lightning-quick. Thus, the retained graphic sensibility continues to channel Banksy’s protest energy outside and inside the gallery. The evocation of stenciling with the implied possibility of instant reproduction allows Banksy to further probe the notion of authority, which heavily relies on repetition that leaves us vulnerable to endorsing messages imposed upon us from outside. By emulating the very mechanism of power, Banksy mounts a challenge to the political establishment for which Churchill can be seen as the ultimate symbol. This critique is further galvanized by the ironic use of the mohican hairstyle—a significant motif in Banksy’s arsenal, previously appearing in his 1997 graffiti depicting the ex-Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.
Statue of Winston Churchill covered by graffiti and a turf mohican during anti-capitalist demonstration, London, 2000
Image: © John Stillwell / Alamy Stock Photo (via Sotheby’s)

The punk-style mohican added to the iconic portrait achieves more than a straight-from-the-shoulder mockery of the British political icon through the aesthetic of the subcultures that historically challenged the establishment ideals. As evidenced in a 2009 work IKEA Punk, Banksy draws on this trope to explore the commercialization and paradoxical homogenization of subculture aesthetics. The rebellion of Turf War does not, therefore, subscribe to an existing rebellion, but rather invokes paradox, disjunction and negation, to highlight ephemeral modern culture’s failure to transcend destruction and injustice. As Will Gompertz remarks, “Banksy makes art that, as Hamlet said, holds ‘…the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’”


Sir Winston Churchill, making a speech on his 80th Birthday at Westminster Hall, London
Image: © Popperfoto via Getty Images, Via Sotheby’s


A compelling, nonconformist voice in contemporary British art and one of the great social commentators of our time, Banksy subverts the language of art history by breaking down the boundaries between graphic and fine art, the street and the gallery, the whimsical and the controlled, the humorous and the earnest. Channeling a powerful current of rebel activity in the art world since the turn of the millennium, when political agitation was viewed by the artist as hopelessly naive, Banksy’s incessant creative remixing of symbols and illumination of paradox have critiqued institutional order brilliantly and with fresh force. As deployed tremendously in Turf War, Banksy is a master of conjuring ambiguity and bemusement as the ultimate tactic for challenging the power structures of contemporary life in the art world and beyond.