More than 300 people took over the British Museum at the weekend to create a giant 200-metre "living artwork" that circled the entire Great Court, in protest at BP sponsorship.
Organisers believe this to be the biggest ever protest in the museum’s 260-year history. 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 yesterday's sixteen-year anniversary of the record-breaking demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq.
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 performers did not request permission for this event, but museum security did not intervene as hundreds of black-clad performers sang, processed, and formed a huge circle around the central rotunda of the Great Court.
The group then 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.
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 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.
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.
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."
Yasmin Younis, who spoke at the event, 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!"
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.
Finally, the performers processed outside and used the giant fabric pieces to fill the museum's front steps for another 30 minutes while Ilaf, an Iraqi spoken word artist (@revolutionbywords) performed a specially-written poem about BP and Iraq.
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.
Today was the group’s 35th performance inside the museum.
As well as the performance action inside the British Museum, a rival exhibition at the nearby P21 Gallery opened yesterday, featuring work by artists from Iraq and of Iraqi descent living in the diaspora.
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.”
This article is based on a press release from BP or not BP? Image: Diana More.