Banksy comes in off the streets

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Guerrilla artist stuns his home city with secret takeover of Bristol gallery. Arifa Akbar reports

The rumour began days ago: Banksy, the anonymous street artist and prodigal son of Bristol, was going back home to stage a secret show.

Banksy's PR machine had put out word that the world's most anonymously famous – and wealthiest – graffiti artist would be erecting his "biggest UK exhibition" right under the noses of the authorities in the city of his birth, which is already dotted with his murals. His fans predicted a show next to the Clifton Suspension Bridge, or maybe in the city centre's disused Woolworths, after a recent stunt in which he had set up a pet shop-cum-exhibition space on a New York street corner.

Yesterday, he ended the speculation by unveiling what was a homage to his home town in the City Museum and Art Gallery, which was nothing if not ironic given his lifetime's insistence that his work was made solely for the streets.

Banksy replaced many of the museum's artefacts with 100 of his own works which included a burnt out ice-cream van, a portrait featuring MPs as chimpanzees in the House of Commons, and a still-life of flowers in a bin, scrawled with graffiti which reads: "This is where I draw the line."

The most sensational aspect of the escapade was that Banksy had managed to curate the show without the museum's top level of management knowing what he was doing.

For most of Banksy's fans this "stunt" was little short of momentous. After a lifetime of daubing the streets with his humorous, outrageous artwork, or sneaking works into the world's major museums to pin up alongside masterpieces (as was the case in the Louvre in Paris when he attached a smiling Banksy Mona Lisa to a wall near Da Vinci's original), he had now brought his work indoors, to the heart of the artistic establishment.

Admittedly, a lot of the exhibits were tongue in cheek creations or self-referential pieces of art that referred to his lifetime's reluctance to present his work in gilt frames. His outdoor work has created immense controversy in Bristol at times, with council officials whitewashing some of Banksy's original creations from the city's walls amid public protests. In a statement, Banksy said: "This is the first show I've ever done where taxpayers' money is being used to hang my pictures up rather than scrape them off".

The exhibition and its location had been a closely guarded secret since last October, with just a couple of officials aware that it would be taking place. Kate Brindley, the museum's director, was one of those who knew about the show and admitted she had taken a risk in allowing it to be staged. "We ran a bit of a risk but we know that it was just the right thing for the city. He's our homegrown hero," Ms Brindley said.

Plans for the show had been kept from Bristol City Council officials until yesterday, a day before it was unveiled to the public, free of charge. Banksy had visited the museum to oversee it but staff were unaware of his identity, which has never definitively been revealed in spite of an exposé last year claiming he was a public school educated artist named Robin Gunningham.

This is Banksy's first "museum" exhibition, although his artworks have sold at auctions to collectors including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

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