At 6.30pm last night, 30 artists, performers and activists arrived at the National Portrait Gallery to disrupt the announcement ceremony of the BP Portrait Award.
While some of the group linked arms in doorways and chained themselves to gates to prevent party guests from entering the building, others handed out a fake BP Portrait Award programme (pdf) that featured images of frontline environmental defenders and BP executives, telling the real story of BP’s destructive impacts around the world.
Meanwhile, a group of artists created live portraits and other artwork outside the gallery. Some of the pieces depicted activists from West Papua, Mexico, Samoa, and the US Gulf Coast who are fighting back against BP and the oil industry’s pollution, corruption, and climate devastation . Other pieces showed the BP executives who bear responsibility for these impacts – including those who were guests at tonight’s award ceremony . The action was organised by the activist theatre group BP or not BP?
At the main entrance security guards attempted to roughly drag members of the group away from the gates, but the activists succeeded in attaching themselves to and blocking the entranceway. The second front entrance was also blocked by a separate team, while at the rear of the building four people linked themselves together at the bottom of the entrance ramp. The blockaders succeeded in preventing entrance to the gallery for thirty minutes, creating a large queue of guests. Protesters were then able to speak to the guests, hand out around 150 fake programmes and showcase the live rebel art display, as well as reading out quotes from the environmental defenders featured in the portraits.
After half an hour with all three pedestrian entrances blocked, the gallery decided to take unusual measures to get guests into the party. Guests were directed to clamber awkwardly over a wall with assistance from security to enter the gallery, creating a long slow-moving queue along the street. At 7.30pm, having achieved their goal of delaying the start of the award party, the group removed themselves from the doorways and gathered to sing songs of defiance before departing.
This action followed the unprecedented news that one of the judges of this year’s Portrait Award – leading artist Gary Hume – has publicly called for the gallery to end its relationship with BP. His call was echoed this morning by eight former exhibitors in the BP Portrait Award exhibition, including two former award winners, in a letter to Director Nicholas Cullinan. Earlier this year, the gallery turned down a £1 million grant from the Sackler family on ethical grounds, due to their links with the opioid crisis. Campaigners point out that this shows that the gallery can make ethical funding decisions when it chooses to do so.
Blockade still going strong round the back of the @NPGLondon as guests climb over barrier to get into the #BPPortrait reception. We are doing this in solidarity with communities around the world facing BP’s destruction #dropbp pic.twitter.com/7obPX7KPJw
— BP or not BP? (@ReclaimOurBard) June 10, 2019
This was BP or not BP?’s 56th rebel performance at an oil-sponsored arts institution. Sarah Horne, a member of the group, said:
“The climate crisis is unfolding at terrifying speed. Those who have done least to cause the problem are worst hit, while oil companies like BP continue to rake in massive profits while actively making the problem worse. BP spends tens of millions every year lobbying against climate action and blocking clean energy alternatives, while pushing for access to yet more oil and gas that we cannot afford to burn. The National Portrait Gallery needs to stop giving this destructive and irresponsible company a veneer of respectability it does not deserve.”
Benny Wenda is an Indigenous leader from West Papua, a nation under brutal occupation by the Indonesian government and where BP runs a major gas extraction project. A print of Benny Wenda’s portrait (by the artist Dale Grimshaw) was one of the images displayed by the protesters outside the gallery today. Mr Wenda told us:
“BP need to admit that they’re operating in the middle of a genocide…BP, you can’t just say that you’re only in West Papua for business. If you continue to work with this illegal occupation, then you’re part of the problem. You fund the illegal Indonesian government. They misuse your funds to buy guns and equipment to kill my people. You take our raw materials, make money, and give some of it to the occupier. We West Papuans see none of the benefits. Whether it’s human rights violations or global warming, BP’s actions directly impact my people.”
Another of today’s protesters, Deborah Locke, said: “We are sorry to cause disruption to guests at the Portrait Award this evening. We know that most of the people attending this event were not involved in the gallery’s decision to promote BP. But in the face of the climate emergency, and BP’s ongoing complicity in human rights abuses, we feel this is a step we have to take. We hope that guests at this event will understand the importance of these issues and bear with us.”
 The frontline portraits are of Benny Wenda, Chair of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua; Cherri Foytlin, Indigenous journalist, advocate and mother of six, who lives on the Gulf Coast in South Louisiana and has been a tireless campaigner for justice for all those affected by BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster; Samir Flores Soberanes, a Mexican land defender who was killed in February this year; and Raedena Savena, a Samoan climate activist and member of the Pacific Climate Warriors collective whose slogan is: “We are not drowning. We are fighting.”
 The BP executives on display in the fake programme are CEO Bob Dudley, Regional President for Europe Peter Mather, and Director of UK Arts, Culture and Paralympics Des Violaris. A portrait of Ms Violaris is also being displayed by the protesters outside the gallery, to highlight the fact that despite having no professional background in the arts, she is a permanent member of the judging panel for the BP Portrait Award.