Q&A: the curators of ‘I am BP, King of Exploitation, King of Injustice’ on protesting BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum

Kyle Hoekstra speaks to the curators of the free exhibition ‘I am BP, King of Exploitation, King of Injustice’, which runs at P21 Gallery until 2 March.

On Saturday 16 February, over 300 people joined the activist group BP or not BP? to stage a demonstration against BP’s sponsorship of the I am Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria exhibition at the British Museum. Activists converged in the museum’s Great Court chanting “drop BP” and carrying banners displaying facts about BP’s exploitation of Iraq’s resources. 

The exhibition I am BP, King of Exploitation, King of Injustice at P21 Gallery, which runs until 2 March and is located just a few streets north of the British Museum, continues the protest and is intended as a direct challenge to the institution and its sponsorship by BP.  It collects work by artists from Iraq and the Iraqi diaspora and focuses on “uncovering the realities and consequences of BP’s intervention in Iraq.”

Its curators Ibtehal Hussain, Mattina Hiwaizi and Shahla Omar collectively answered questions from London Student over email.

What is your background and your role with the exhibition?

We, as the curators of I am BP, King of Exploitation, King of Injustice’ are a group of Iraqi activists from a variety of backgrounds who wanted to create a space to platform contemporary Iraqi voices. We also wanted to bring back the often forgotten issue of BP’s activity in lobbying for the Iraq war, whilst shedding light on the destruction that BP is causing in Iraq (and beyond) today.

The exhibition is a direct protest of the BP sponsored, ‘I am Ashurbanipal, King of the world, King of Assyria’ exhibition, currently on at The British Museum. We took inspiration from the alternative exhibition,From Nope to Hope’, which was set up in response to an arms industry event hosted in The Design Museum last year.

Malik Alawe, installation view of I am BP, King of Exploitation, King of Injustice

Who are BP or Not BP? and why are they protesting at the British Museum?

BP or not BP? is an activist theatre group who have been creating performances without permission in oil-sponsored museums, galleries and theatres since 2012. No War! No Warming! on the 16th February 2019 was the group’s 35th performance in the British Museum, and its biggest yet. The protest was organised to commemorate the momentous mobilisation that took place in 2003, against the invasion of Iraq.

Khalid Tawfiq Hadi, 2018, courtesy of I am BP, King of Exploitation, King of Injustice

The British Museum is a colonial institution that has looted artefacts from across the world; one that chooses to collaborate with destructive corporations like BP (who contribute to only 0.5% of the museum’s income). We demand that the British Museum stops promoting an oil company that bears huge responsibility for the unfolding climate crisis, and for exacerbating conflict, pollution, human rights abuses and corruption around the world.

What is the exhibition at P21 Gallery about and what does it encompass?

‘I am BP, King of Exploitation, King of Injustice’ calls into question the role that arts and cultural institutions like The British Museum play in rebranding the corporate image of destructive companies. As an alternative exhibition space that centres on contemporary Iraqi artistry and voice, it is a necessarily urgent realisation of a space in which solutions to unethical oil sponsorship and the gatekeeping of heritage by Western institutions are materialised.  

Working alongside BP or not BP? we aimed to bring attention to the way the climate crisis is impacting those living in Iraq:

Rising temperatures, intense droughts, declining precipitation, desertification, salinization, and the increasing prevalence of dust storms have undermined Iraq’s agricultural sector. Additionally, Iraq’s water security is based on two declining rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. National and regional political uncertainty will make mitigating the effects of climate changes and addressing transnational water management very difficult.’ (Climate Change: Consequences on Iraq’s Environment, 2018)

As members of the diaspora we feel a responsibility to do what we can to bring these issues into the spotlight and protect our families, our culture and our heritage.

Adela Foo, installation view of Khalid Tawfiq Hadi’s photographs of protests in Basra in 2018 in I am BP, King of Exploitation, King of Injustice. The original caption reads: “Everyone here in Basra, without exception,  is disillusioned by the deterioration of public services. Everyone protests, everyone is subjected to repression, to abuse, to tear gas and to constant pursuance.”

The exhibition’s title “I AM BRITISH PETROLEUM: KING OF EXPLOITATION, KING OF INJUSTICE” is certainly provocative, linking BP to a dominating and militaristic empire. Could you explain the choice of title?

BP played a crucial role in lobbying the UK government before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Minutes of a 2002 meeting with the Foreign Office, revealed by Greg Muttit, state that “Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP are desperate to get in there.” (emphasis added). The Chilcot report also identified that BP had started a technical review of the Rumaila field as early as 2003. BP’s empire is one that benefits from war, and the destruction and exploitation of life, land and environment. BP is a company guilty of environmental injustice and complicit in the exacerbation of the socio-economic conditions in Iraq that saw widespread protests across the country in the summer of 2018. While BP profits massively from the exploitation of Iraq’s natural resources, Iraqis suffer from power cuts, unclean and inconsistent water supply, rampant state corruption and mass youth unemployment.

Frame from Rabab Ghazoul’s film It’s a Long Way Back (Chilcot Project) which examines Tony Blair’s 2010 testimonial to the Chilcot Inquiry. Courtesy of  I am BP, King of Exploitation, King of Injustice

On the event page, BP or Not BP? describes how objects in the “I am Ashurbanipal” exhibition were looted from Iraq. How does this colonial history intersect with the group’s environmental concerns?

In narrating these links at the No War, No Warming performance, members of our group described what BP was doing as: Taking profits, leaving destruction behind. The model of today’s extractive companies sustains the same dynamics imposed through colonialism. The wreckage of the Earth, the extraction of value, the concentration of profit, the destruction of life.”

The relationship between both the British Museum and BP angered and outraged us because of the horror that this collaboration was/is contributing to. BP’s role in the invasion no doubt played a role in making the conditions difficult for people to safeguard and prioritise safeguarding artefacts (a ridiculous argument made in favour of the British Museum’s exploitation of artefacts from Iraq, and across the world). The way in which BP operates is very much within a colonial structure. Today for example, BP is exploiting and profiting from the third largest oilfield in the world (Rumaila, in Basra, Iraq), whilst people lack access to basic services and suffer from polluted and contaminated water.

The oil industry is not only worsening droughts, it is actively polluting local water resources. In October 2018 a civil society fact-finding mission found dangerous levels of pollution in Basra’s water supplies. Extreme rates of cancer, asthma, allergies and birth defects have also been reported among residents of Basra and the surrounding region who live near oil facilities. The toxins in the water come from the disposal of industrial and petrochemical waste through pipelines, and is so bad that the fact-finding team advised that this water is not appropriate for residential use. Unfortunately, bottled water is often unavailable, or unaffordable to many.’ (Culture Unsustained)

The British Museum exhibition “I Am Ashurbanipal” is clearly the result of a studious and compassionate engagement with the region and its past. The curators explain the colonial context in which artefacts arrived at the museum and how the British public responded to them. It also features a room which describes the importance of heritage in Iraq to local communities. How does this factor into yours and BP or Not BP?’s response to it?

Adela Foo, installation view of Mariwan Jalal, Power and Destruction (2014) courtesy of I am BP, King of Exploitation, King of Injustice 

The British Museum’s ‘studiousness’ comes from colonially established institutions (like the BISI), with/and a heavy reliance on figures like Gertrude Bell that assumed we were not equipped to study/preserve our own history. Studious and compassionate engagement with the past would acknowledge colonial theft and plunder. ‘I am Ashurbanipal’ is at best a studious and compassionate engagement with a selective and rewritten past.

The artefacts are shown in an environment that is inaccessible to the vast majority of Iraqis. The British Museum has attempted to pose as an institution that values all cultures, when in reality it has played an active role in stealing from communities and depriving them from their own history, culture and heritage. The British Museum can not claim to have empathy towards Iraqis accessing their heritage when they are holding objects in a country that many Iraqis are denied entry to. Moreover, The British Museum’s argument that it “legally acquired” these objects from the Ottoman Empire – an occupying force within the region (and one that is not even Iraqi) – is ridiculous, and indicative of the immorality of this process of “acquisition”.

The truth is that BP has caused not only great environmental destruction in Iraq, but socio-economic devastation too.

In the, ‘I am Ashurbanipal, King of the world, King of Assyria’ exhibition catalogue forward; Bob Dudley, Group Chief Executive, BP states, ‘We returned to the area (The Rumaila oil field in Basra, Iraq) in 2009 as the first international oil and gas company to invest in the country after the conflict. Development of Rumaila has been extremely important for Iraq: it provides thousands of jobs for local people, and and generates tens of billions of dollars in revenue every year for the country.’ The truth is that BP has caused not only great environmental destruction in Iraq, but socio-economic devastation too. BP was subcontracted to extract from an Iraqi oilfield that employed Iraqi workers. Since subcontraction, foreign, western workers have been brought in,  with better pay than the Iraqis who originally worked there – even if they are of lesser expertise. The result is less jobs for Iraqis, shocking poverty and alarming rates of unemployment in one of the most oil-rich areas in the world. Given the destruction that BP has exacted in Iraq, its subsequent self-branding as a protective and celebratory force of Iraqi culture is both audacious and repulsive – as is the British Museum’s active decision to platform and co-sign this propaganda.

The prioritisation of BP’s own interests render them complicit in a war that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the displacement of millions. The British Museum is legitimising BP’s actions in Iraq by allowing their sponsorship of an exhibition that allows BP to be seen as benevolent guardians and gatekeepers of Iraqi heritage, when in fact they have actively contributed to its destruction.

What role should institutions like the British Museum play in society?

The very least institutions like the British Museum can do is to come to terms with the truth of how they have ‘acquired’ objects, and make an active effort in repatriating to communities. Museums across the world, like the Iraq Museum in Baghdad hold replicas of its own artefacts whilst the originals are locked off in museums like the Louvre, and the British Museum etc. A recent example of a call to repatriation, comes from Indigenous Australian activist Rodney Kelly. Kelly has been persistently fighting to repatriate the Gweagal Shield which belonged to his ancestors but his calls have been shamefully ignored by the British Museum. The British Museum and other institutions like it cannot argue that they are preservers of culture when they actively collaborate with corporations that destroy cultures and contribute to the war, terror and instability that make it hard for people to preserve their own heritage.

Thank you to the curators of I am BP, King of Exploitation, King of Injustice: Ibtehal Hussain, Mattina Hiwaizi and Shahla Omar, and also Danny Chivers and Jess Worth of BP or not BP? The curators wish to direct readers to https://www.behindthelogos.org/iraq/.

More information about the exhibition, which runs until Saturday, 2 March 2019, is available here. P21 Gallery is located at 21 Chalton St, Kings Cross, London NW1 1JD.

Kyle Hoekstra joined LS in 2015. Kyle studied BA History and MA Creative Writing at UCL and RHUL and was London Student's Exhibitions editor 2018-2020. Contact: kyle.hoekstra@londonstudent.coop.

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