We bring a rebel exhibit to the National Portrait Gallery

  • Street artist joins performance activists to display portrait and give public talks in the BP Portrait Award gallery, without permission
  • Portrait depicts Indigenous West Papuan leader who is highly critical of BP’s operations
  • BP’s support for Indonesia’s controversial occupation of West Papua contradicts the gallery’s ethics policy, campaigners say
  • Performers present “Hypocrisy” and “Pollution” awards in spoof ceremony inside BP Portrait Award exhibition


Last night at 7.30pm, a group of twelve performers – including respected street artist Dale Grimshaw – set up a new exhibit, without permission, inside the National Portrait Gallery in London. They took over a space at the entrance to the BP Portrait Award exhibition, and set up a display featuring an original portrait by Grimshaw. This portrait shows the Indigenous West Papuan independence leader, Benny Wenda [1].

Benny Wenda is an outspoken critic of the National Portrait Gallery’s sponsor, BP, as the oil company works closely with the Indonesian government who are currently brutally occupying West Papuan lands [2]. According to Wenda, “BP is operating in the middle of a genocide. Since 1963, hundreds of thousands of West Papuans have been killed by the Indonesian occupation, either directly by government forces or through the loss of their homes, their lands and their livelihoods. The money that BP pays to the Indonesian government helps them to buy weapons and ammunition that are used to harass, intimidate and kill my people.”

Dale Grimshaw talks to the public inside the gallery about his portrait of Benny Wenda. Photo by Kristian Buus.

This quote was shown prominently beside the portrait in tonight’s rebel art display, and was also printed on hundreds of leaflets given to gallery visitors by the performers, who are from the theatrical action group BP or not BP?. Gallery staff attempted to usher the public out of the BP exhibition, but in doing so brought large numbers of people through the room with the unsanctioned exhibit, where many stayed to listen to the talks and performances.

Visitors read leaflets about rebel exhibit at the NPG. Photo by Kristian Buus
Gallery visitors read leaflets about the rebel exhibit. Photo by Kristian Buus.

Last night’s performance was timed to coincide with the hand-in, earlier in the day in Geneva, of a 200,000-strong international petition calling for a free and fair independence vote for the people of West Papua. This petition has been banned in Indonesia itself and West Papuan activist Yanto Awerkion is currently in jail, imprisoned by the Indonesian government for collecting petition signatures.

Earlier this year, Dale Grimshaw entered the portrait of Benny Wenda into the BP Portrait Award as a way to raise awareness of the West Papuan cause, and to highlight BP’s support for the Indonesian regime. However, the portrait was not shortlisted by the judges.

“I didn’t really know if it was likely to get shortlisted when the subject matter is so critical of the sponsor – especially as BP has a seat on the judging panel” said Grimshaw. “But bringing the portrait to the gallery today gives us an opportunity to tell Benny’s story directly to the public, and raise vital awareness of the West Papuan people’s struggle for freedom. BP gets to plaster its logo all over the gallery and present this false version of itself to the world. Art can be a way to fight back against that and tell the truth about what these companies are really doing.”

BP’s relationship with Indonesia – and with other repressive governments including Egypt, Azerbaijan and Mexico – are currently the subject of a formal complaint to the National Portrait Gallery by the campaign group Culture Unstained. Freedom of Information requests have revealed that the gallery’s Ethical Fundraising Policy expresses concerns about taking money from companies “known or suspected to be closely associated with a regime known or suspected to be in violation of human rights”. The gallery’s deal with BP appears to contravene this policy, and so Culture Unstained are pursuing the matter through a formal complaints process.

Visitors at the NPG watch a film by West Papuan activist Raki Ap about BP's activities. Photo by Kristian Buus
Visitors watch a film by West Papuan activist Raki Ap about BP’s activities in West Papua. Photo by Kristian Buus.

The group stayed in the gallery until it closed at 9pm, giving talks to the public about the painting and showing films of Benny Wenda and Raki Ap, another prominent West Papuan activist, talking about BP’s role in the occupation of their lands.

The film by Raki Ap that was shown to gallery visitors

The group also performed a spoof awards ceremony, where BP received a “Pollution Award”, the National Portrait Gallery was given a “Hypocrisy Award” for their failure to follow their own ethical funding policy, and the West Papuan activist Yanto Awerkion was presented in absentia with an award for courage, and had the whole performance dedicated to him.

BP and the National Portrait Gallery receive their spoof awards. Photo by Kristian Buus
BP and the National Portrait Gallery receive their awards for Hypocrisy and Pollution. Photo by Kristian Buus

The National Portrait Gallery refuses to say how much money it gets from BP, but estimates place it at around £375,000 per year [3]. This is less than 2% of the gallery’s annual income, and is less than the price of two 30-second TV adverts during the final of The X-Factor. By comparison, National Portrait Gallery visitors contribute around £3 million per year through ticket purchases alone, while taxpayers provide £6.6 million per year. Meanwhile, the UK government gives hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer money in subsidies to BP each year.

BP or not BP? is a member of the Art Not Oil Coalition.

[1] Benny Wenda is a West Papuan Independence leader, Spokesperson for the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), and founder of the Free West Papua Campaign. He lives in exile in the United Kingdom. In 2003 he was granted political asylum by the British Government following his escape from custody while on trial in West Papua on politically motivated charges. See http://www.bennywenda.org/biography

[2] West Papua forms one half of the richly forested island of New Guinea, and is home to around 250 different Indigenous peoples. After colonisation by the Dutch Empire, West Papua was promised independence until Indonesia forcibly occupied the territory in 1963. In 1969, the occupation was formalised by the UN following a controversial “vote”, where 1,026 hand-picked Papuans were marched to polling stations at gunpoint by Indonesian troops and ordered to vote to become part of Indonesia. In the following decades, the Indonesian government has profited from selling West Papua’s rich natural resources to extractive corporations such as BP and Rio Tinto, while an estimated 500,000 West Papuans have been killed in the ongoing military occupation. See https://newint.org/features/2017/05/01/morning-star-rising

[3] BP’s new five-year deal with four cultural institutions (the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and the Royal Shakespeare Company) costs £7.5 million over five years, according to the company itself. If divided equally between all four institutions, this comes to £375,000 per institution per year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.