We create a 200 metre living artwork in the biggest-ever protest against the British Museum

A spoof BP advert made by BP or not BP? to promote the mass performance, which has been viewed more than 120,000 times on social media

More than 300 people took over the British Museum on Saturday to create a giant 200-metre “living artwork” that circled the entire Great Court, in protest at BP sponsorship. This was the the biggest ever protest to target the museum in its 260-year history [1]. The action took place to challenge the oil giant’s sponsorship of an Assyrian exhibition that includes objects from what is now Iraq.

BP’s role in the Iraq war, its contribution to climate change and the oil industry’s negative impacts in Iraq are of particular concern to campaigners, who held the protest to mark the sixteen-year anniversary of the record-breaking demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq [2].

The crowd point at the BP logo and chant “Drop BP”. Photo by Safa Kadhim.

The organisers of the performance protest, BP or not BP?, are also pointing to the British Museum’s exhibition itself, which includes ancient Iraqi artefacts originally looted by British explorers. The museum claims that the items were obtained with the permission of the Ottoman Empire – in other words, they were handed over by an imperial power that was occupying the region at the time, without the consent of the local people. This is the same Ottoman Empire that allowed Lord Elgin to infamously hack off large pieces of the Parthenon and ship them to Britain – and ultimately to the British Museum – without the knowledge or permission of the people of Athens.

Several smaller actions took place before the main protest. A group called London Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement (London DANCE) held a meditation against BP on the museum steps at 12.30pm.

London DANCE meditate outside the museum to draw attention to BP sponsorship. Photo by Diana More.

At the same time, campaigners from Our Future Now posed as museum staff and surveyed visitors about stolen items in the museum.

Members of Our Future Now conduct a fake survey, to spark conversations with museum visitors about stolen objects in the museum – including the Gweagal Shield, pictured here on the left. Photo by Safa Kadhim.

At 1.30pm, members of Fossil Free London donned their oily best to play spoof BP executives who rebranded the Assyria Gallery with a stark message: ‘The British Museum is proudly sponsored by climate change.’ With oil dribbling down their faces, these BP brand enforcement officers reassured museum-goers that although BP has 3% invested in renewables, it will keep the vast majority of its investments in fossil fuels and remain 97% evil. They also promised to keep generously giving the Museum less than half a per cent of their annual budget – as long as they get a bigger logo on the next poster!

Oily BP executives from Fossil Free London gather excitedly around a BP logo. Photo by Safa Kadhim.

Iraqi poet and human rights activist Ilaf Moslawy (@revolutionbywords) joined the group to read from her powerful new piece I am BP

Ilaf Moslawy performs inside the museum. Photo by Diana More.

At 2.00pm, the main BP or not BP? performance began. Stewards led the crowd in the following song:

We are the people rising
When oil burns and armies grow
You stole our past and future
It’s time for you to go, go, go
Time for you to go

Introductory speakers greeted the participants and read out the powerful words of the Iraqi photojournalist Khaled Tawfiq Hadi, describing his experiences with the protests for basic services and clean water in Basra:

“In Basra, all the wars weren’t enough for us to die in them, it became outdated that we died by bullet or by car accident. Now, even the taps kill us, the very taps that are the sources of water to our houses.”

One of the welcome speakers reads the words of Khaled Tawfiq Hadi to the crowd. Photo by Diana More.

The hundreds of black-clad performers then sang, processed, and formed a huge circle around the central rotunda of the Great Court. The group revealed 200 metres of black fabric – which they had smuggled into the museum – featuring words and symbols representing the connections between BP sponsorship, climate change, looted artefacts and the Iraq War.

Stewards in red “I Object to BP” T-shirts – a reference to the British Museum’s recent “I Object” exhibition – rally the crowd in song. Photo by Diana More.
Participants form a circle around the central rotunda. Photo by Safa Kadhim.
The fabric is revealed. Photo by Diana More.

This design incorporated artwork by the Kurdish Iraqi artist Mariwan Jalal. Together, the performers and the fabric surrounded the central reading room of the museum with a giant “living tapestry” which remained in place for half an hour. The performers did not request permission for this event, but museum security did not intervene.

Photo by Safa Kadhim.
Over 1000 leaflets were given to museum visitors. Photo by Diana More.

The protest performance then moved to the entrance of the Assyria exhibition itself, where participants sat down, filling the floor with people and tapestry pieces that read “OIL x ARMS = IRAQ WAR” and “DROP BP”. A banner was revealed containing a notorious 2002 quote from the UK Foreign Office, uncovered many years later through Freedom of Information: “Iraq is THE big oil prospect. BP are desperate to get in there”. This comment was made by government officials to describe the oil company’s intentions when it was lobbying the government for access to Iraq’s oil just before the 2003 invasion.

The “smoking gun” Foreign Office quote describing BP’s government lobbying before the Iraq War. Photo by Safa Kadhim.

Words and messages from Iraq were read out and chanted by the crowd, and participants of Iraqi descent spoke of their own personal experiences of the Iraq War and of the current situation in Iraq today. One speaker, Zeena Yasin, shared a personal story to illustrate the real human impacts of the invasion of Iraq:

“During the bombing of Mosul against ISIS, which is a direct consequence of the western invasion of Iraq – the husband of my auntie wanted to aid his neighbours. His wife begged him not to, worrying for his safety. Because of his bravery, strength and chivalry, he went in an attempt to save his relatives. Alas, the house he went to was bombed and he was one of the casualties. Because of the destruction of infrastructure and transport, she could not get him to the hospital in time. It was not safe enough to get a taxi or get on a bus. She pushed him on a pushchair for hours and he succumbed to his injuries on the way.”

Tara Mariwany, Yasmin Younis and Zeena Yasin address the crowd. Photo by Safa Kadhim.

A second speaker, Yasmin Younis, said:

“When I saw there would be a special exhibition on my culture and my history, I was ecstatic because for once, my culture’s beauty would be celebrated, but finding out the sponsor was BP was a massive slap in the face. These are the very same sponsors who advocated for the war which destroyed my homeland and slaughtered my people all in the name of oil. To BP and the British Museum, I say how DARE you use my culture and my history as an attempt to hide your colonialist skeletons. Not my culture, not my country. No war, no warming!”

Photo by Diana More.

A third speaker, Tara Mariwany, said:

“In Basra, daily protests have been staged since summer 2018 due to growing frustrations at the corrupt leadership and foreign companies that are draining the the country’s vast resources unhindered, to the detriment of the people. As Iraqis are struggling to find water for their crops or feed their cattle with, the British Museum have partnered up with a company that is not only polluting waters with waste, but in 2016 and 2017 have used over 720,000 barrels per day of water for their oil production. As Iraqis are being viciously and violently targeted for demanding their rights, the British Museum are working with a company that is happily lining its pockets with Iraq’s wealth.

“We refuse to be complicit not only in the destruction of our planet, but the exploitation of a people and their land that have done nothing but demand to live their lives in dignity. As Iraqis continue to rise up, we too must demand the British Museum end their partnership with BP.  As protest signs in Basra read: ‘Our rights will not be lost so as long as we continue to demand them‪.'”

Photo by Diana More.

Participants then wrote two hundred personal messages on slips of paper which were displayed and then handed in to the museum, demanding that it ends its relationship with BP, returns stolen objects and addresses its colonial past. A thousand leaflets were also given to museum visitors.

Photo by Diana More.

Finally, the performers processed outside and used the giant fabric pieces to fill the museum’s front steps for another 30 minutes while Ilaf Moslawy again performed.

Giant fabric pieces fill the museum steps. Photo by Diana More.

This was not the first time the museum’s Assyria exhibition has been targeted by the performance activists. Last November, BP or not BP? set up a fake BP welcoming committee outside the exhibition, with Iraqi activists enacting a protest against the bogus BP spokespeople. Saturday was the group’s 35th performance inside the museum, and 54th performance overall.

Huge pieces of fabric fill the museum steps. Photo by Safa Kadhim.

As well as the performance action inside the British Museum, a rival exhibition at the nearby P21 Gallery opened on Friday, featuring work by artists from Iraq and of Iraqi descent living in the diaspora. As well as celebrating the work of Iraqi artists, the exhibition aims to expose BP’s relationship with Iraq, and its attempts to exploit Iraqi culture in order to “artwash” its damaged image.

Also on Friday, campaigns and research group Culture Unstained released a new briefing called “From war to warming: BP’s shameful history in Iraq”, telling the story of BP and its negative impacts in Iraq, past and present.

Maryam Hussain, an Iraqi member of BP or not BP?, said:

“An exhibition featuring looted objects from ancient Iraq, sponsored by an oil company? The British Museum and BP should be ashamed. We have not forgotten, nor forgiven, the role that BP played in lobbying the UK government for access to Iraq’s oil before the 2003 invasion.

“This outrageous exhibition only makes us more adamant in our demands for accountability of those who played a role in the invasion of Iraq. We will continue our fight for the decolonisation of our public institutions and resist the exploitation of people, land and environment by big oil companies.”

Photo by Diana More.

Sarah Horne, another member of BP or not BP? said:

“It’s extraordinary that the publicly-funded British Museum is promoting a fossil fuel company in the middle of a climate crisis. BP is actively lobbying against climate laws, blocking clean energy and pushing ahead with ever-riskier drilling projects. The British Museum is helping BP to present a false face to the world, when in reality this rogue company is trampling on people’s rights, profiting from conflicts – especially the Iraq War – and driving us deeper into climate disaster. This dirty sponsorship deal needs to end now.

“If the British Museum is ever to address its colonial past it must also stop promoting companies like BP, who stand accused of neocolonial activities around the world today.”

Over 200m of fabric surrounded the rotunda – equivalent to twice the height of the Big Ben tower. Photo by Safa Kadhim.

[1] Previous BP or not BP? performance protests in the museum have involved up to 200 people (see this one for example). When challenged by the Guardian on whether any larger protests had taken place in the building, the British Museum said it had been “affected” by the Chartist uprisings in the 1830s but these did not directly target the museum.

[2] The performance happened on February 16th 2019, one day after the anniversary of the Iraq War protests on February 15th 2003.

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