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LONDON — In reaction to the BP-supported exhibition at the British Museum, I am Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria, (which recently closed) — a reactionary, interdisciplinary show at P21 Gallery in London I AM BRITISH PETROLEUM: KING OF EXPLOITATION, KING OF INJUSTICE uncovers the realities and consequences of the oil company’s intervention in Iraq.
From 1921 until its independence in 1931, Iraq was known as Mandatory Iraq, which was under the control of the British empire which influenced the development of the state’s oil resources. In 1927, after embarking on oil exploration, the British found large oil deposits in the areas surrounding Mosul, and British Petroleum has had a constant presence in Iraq ever since. In an Independent article published in 2011, it was revealed that, together with large oil companies, British government ministers had been discussing plans to exploit Iraq’s oil reserves one year before taking a leading role in the invasion of Iraq. In the minutes of their meeting — obtained by oil campaigner Greg Muttitt under the Freedom of Information Act — between the British Foreign Office and BP on November 6, 2002, it was noted that “BP is desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity.”
At P21 Gallery a range of artworks — made by artists from all the ethnic groups found in Iraq — comment on the devastating effects BP has had on the country. In Abdel-Karim Khalil’s painting “Mourners,” (2005) three black figures stand huddled together, covering their faces with their hands. A bright, rainbow-colored background behind them looks like an oil explosion, suggesting that the black liquid is the cause of their woes.
This sentiment of loss is repeated throughout the exhibition. In “Orphans of Baghdad,” (2018) Ayaat Hussain’s line drawing of three young boys is actually made up of the names of innocent lives lost in Iraq under the dictatorial Ba’ath regime. Accompanying this, her embroidery work – “Unapologetic” (2018) – comprises several sheer pieces of needlework trapped behind thick wooden frames, representing the forgotten stories of families in Iraq.
Perhaps the most confrontational works however, are photographic. Despite the oil sector accounting for 99% of Iraq’s export revenues, and 89% of the state budget, it makes up only 1% of jobs, meaning that few living in the lands generating this oil wealth benefit from it. In fact, most suffer, with water pollution in Basra a major humanitarian problem. Beside his images of the 2018 Basra protests, Khalid Tawfiq Hadi writes:
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 in our houses.
His images show young girls side by side with elderly men marching protest signs through the streets, while women apply first aid to men wounded by tear gas. Meanwhile, Tamara Abdul Hadi’s series “Mesopotamian Marshlands” (2018) illustrates the lives of women living simply off the land, making the most of the natural resources that are at risk of exploitation.
In her film Baghdad’s Day (2005), Hiba Bassem, a former student at the Independent Film and TV College in Baghdad, comments on her day-to-day life. The film sheds light on a country that’s been ravaged by war. At one point she admits her regrets over not voting, and applauds those who did so, “to put a stop to terrorism, destruction and blood.” In another moment, she documents her sister, who tells Bassem about her school in Kirkuk: “My school was in a completely Kurdish area, they’d give me kisses every morning”, she is filmed saying. “When Baghdad fell, the Kurds got more power and my friends suddenly changed completely. At that point any hope I had of staying in Kirkuk disappeared.” Yet this isn’t the most harrowing part of the film. One scene includes a young man who lost his hand when the phone he was holding exploded. “Sometimes I wake up thinking it’s just a nightmare,” he explains, while telling Bassem how everyday tasks like washing his face or pulling up his blankets now take a long time.
In conjunction with the exhibition, a protest was held by BP or not BP — a performance group which protests BP’s arts sponsorship and assisted in putting together the show — at the British Museum on February 16, 2019. During the demonstration a flash mob appeared with fake oil dripping from their mouths, holding a banner reading “BRITISH MUSEUM proudly sponsored by CLIMATE CHANGE”, whilst also delivering 200 hand-written messages to the museum, requesting that it drop BP as a sponsor.
While most of the work in P21 comments on the contemporary situation in Iraq, Sundus Abdul Hadi’s “Forensic Facial Reconstruction” (2019) looks back at Iraq’s ancient origins right back to the Sumerian period, specifically to the Goddess Inanna. Inanna was worshipped as early as the Uruk period (c. 4000–3100 BCE), thousands of years before Ashurbanipal who is the focus of the British Museum exhibition and was king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire between c. 668–627 BCE. Abdul Hadi’s film work reconstructs the missing facial features on the Mask of Warka — one of the earliest representations of the human female face, and said to be a depiction of Inanna — using her own visage. On the accompanying label, Abdul Hadi explains that she is taking control of art history “in a time where it is often influenced by political agendas” — a riposte to BP’s farcical support of an exhibition about a civilization that was situated in a modern-day country it has helped to destroy. The mask was looted when the United States invaded Iraq in March of 2003, and was recovered in an orchard a few miles north of Baghdad that October.
The contracts signed in the wake of the 2003 invasion in Iraq covered 60 billion barrels of oil, bought by companies that included BP (as well as a number of other oil corporations). In 2011, their joint profits were about $658m per year from the Rumaila field in southern Iraq alone. I AM BRITISH PETROLEUM: KING OF EXPLOITATION, KING OF INJUSTICE highlights the human consequences of this activity — environmental crises, state corruption and youth unemployment — in Iraq, and calls into question the impact of exhibition sponsorship on subjects relating to the very region that has suffered from deteriorating socio-economic conditions as a result of the oil corporation’s presence.
I AM BRITISH PETROLEUM: KING OF EXPLOITATION, KING OF INJUSTICE runs through March 2 at P21 Gallery (21-27 Chalton Street, London, UK).