A group of thirty artists, performers and activists arrived at the National Portrait Gallery to disrupt the announcement ceremony of the BP Portrait Award this week.
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 awards programme that challenged BP’s long-standing sponsorship of the award.
You can read the fake programme here.
Meanwhile, a group of portrait artists and cartoonists created live artwork outside the gallery.
Some of the artwork 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 protesters 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 fake programmes and showcase the live rebel art display, as well as reading out quotes from the environmental defenders featured in the portraits.
At the main entrance security guards attempted to roughly drag protesters 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 team of activists, while at the rear of the building four protesters linked themselves together at the bottom of the entrance ramp.
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 protesters 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.
BP or not BP? are the creative action group behind today’s protest. They have staged more than 50 rebel performances at BP-sponsored arts institutions.
Veneer of respectability
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 said: “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.”
Marianne Brooker is The Ecologist's content editor. This article is based on a press release from BP or not BP?
Image: Mark Kerrison.