LONDON — The National Portrait Gallery’s annual portrait prize exhibition gained an extra exhibit last night thanks to an intervention by BP or Not BP?, an anti-British Petroleum (BP) artist protest group. The BP Portrait Prize is an annual public competition that has run for 37 years and has been sponsored by BP since 1990. The protest was one of many staged events against BP’s involvement in the arts in recent years by BP or not BP? and other members of the Art Not Oil Coalition.
In the hall just outside the exhibition space, BP or not BP? unveiled a portrait of Benny Wenda, a West Papuan independence leader exiled in the UK. Wenda is the face of a struggle that protesters claim has been ignored by BP.
“It felt good to do something not only about BP’s impact on climate change, but also the human rights aspects,” Lianna Etkind, a participant in the protest, told me. “Companies like BP are complicit in people losing their land from flooding resulting from climate change, but also complicit in acts of direct oppression.”
BP works closely with the Indonesian government to extract West Papuan natural resources such as liquefied natural gas. There is a strong liberation movement in West Papua, the western half of the island of New Guinea, to gain independence as a nation, as the Indonesian government has claimed it a province of its country since 1963.
According to a statement given by 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.”
The portrait was displayed next to the “morning star” flag, used by West Papuan independence supporters but which is banned by Indonesia.
Dale Grimshaw, the painter of the portrait, had submitted his painting of Benny Wenda to the competition as a form of protest, but it was not selected. He explained his decision to protest the exhibition in an impromptu talk to gallery-goers. He said: “[BP] know very well what’s going on in the land, they engage politically and financially speaking with the Indonesian military … could you imagine, on a weekly basis, people you know being imprisoned and tortured for peaceful protest?”
He also said in a statement: “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.”
The intervention was timed to happen on the same day as the submission to the UN of a 140,000-strong international petition calling for a free and fair independence vote for the people of West Papua.
After the portrait was unveiled, the group screened a short video of Wenda and performed a mini “awards ceremony” presenting prizes for “biggest hypocrite” and “biggest polluter” to the “Director of the National Portrait Gallery” and a “BP representative” respectively.
The charge of hypocrisy stems from the National Portrait Gallery’s Ethical Fundraising Policy, released via a Freedom of Information request made by Culture Unstained, which states concern over accepting funds from anyone “known or suspected to be closely associated with a regime known or suspected to be in violation of human rights.”
The National Portrait Gallery does not publicly state how much money it receives from BP, but it is a share of the £7.5 million five-year deal between the National Portrait Gallery and three other British cultural institutions. BP or not BP? point out that a quarter of this amount would be less than 2% of the gallery’s annual income.
Hyperallergic reached out to the National Portrait Gallery for comment but as of this writing has received no response.
BP’s relationship with Indonesia as well as other repressive governments are currently the subject of a formal complaint to the National Portrait Gallery by the campaign group Culture Unstained, who, along with BP or not BP?, are part of the Art Not Oil Coalition.
The BP or not BP? protest took place at the National Portrait Gallery (St. Martin’s Pl, London) on Thursday, August 31.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated BP or not BP? had requested a Freedom of Information request from the National Gallery’s Ethical Fundraising Policy. This is incorrect; Culture Unstained had made the request. This has been fixed.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.