Syrian artist latest to attack BP sponsorship of British Museum

Reem Alsayyah says her work in Troy exhibition is being used to ‘artwash’ oil firm’s activities

A Syrian artist who fled the civil war has criticised BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum’s exhibition Troy: Myth and Reality, saying her work was being used to “artwash” what she described as the “impacts and crimes” of the oil company.

A film of Queens of Syria – a modern retelling of Euripides’ The Trojan Women by a group of Syrian refugees, which was directed by Zoe Lafferty and featured Reem Alsayyah – is included in the show. The pair are the latest artists to call on major British arts institution to end their partnerships with BP.

In an open letter to the British Museum trustees and its director, Hartwig Fischer, Alsayyah and Lafferty said BP’s sponsorship of the event was more egregious because, they allege, the company “has directly profited from the widespread destruction and displacement of people like the 13 women who formed the cast for our play. And yet you have reached the conclusion that its logo should brand an exhibition highlighting exactly the issues BP contributes to causing.”

The pair said it was devastating to have the brand associated with their work, adding that it was “no secret that BP backed the second Gulf war, eyeing opportunities to take control of oil reserves in the region”.

Queens of Syria will remain in the exhibition, which opens on Thursday, but Alsayyah and Lafferty said BP’s continued sponsorship of cultural events in Britain puts artists in an impossible position.

They wrote: “We must decide whether it is worse to try to remove our work from the exhibition – taking away the chance that this show can shine a light on the harsh realities that our team are living under – or to allow our work to help ‘artwash’ the impacts and crimes of BP, a multinational oil and gas company that has wreaked havoc on this planet and its people.”

A scene from Queens Of Syria at the Young Vic in London in 2016.
A scene from Queens of Syria at the Young Vic in London in 2016. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

In February there was an occupation of the British Museum in protest against its relationship with BP, while in June, a group of artists wrote to the director of the National Portrait Gallery, calling on it to end its relationship with the company before the NPG’s annual awards.

In the same month, Extinction Rebellion called on the NPG and the Royal Opera House to sever ties with BP, and Sir Mark Rylance resigned from the Royal Shakespeare Company after a 30-year association, over the sponsorship he said allowed the oil company to “obscure the destructive reality of its activities”. Last month the RSC announced it was ending its BP deal two years early, after a sustained campaign by artists and environmentalists.

In July, the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif resigned as British Museum trustee because of “immovability” on critical issues, including BP’s sponsorship.

Last week, National Galleries Scotland announced its 2019 BP portrait award exhibition, which opens in early December, would be the last time the event would take place there in its present form, citing NGS’s “responsibility to do all we can to address the climate emergency”.

In 2016, Tate and the Edinburgh international festival announced they were ending their sponsorship deals with BP, after more than two decades.

Culture Unstained, which campaigns against oil sponsorship of culture, said it was crunch time for the British Museum.

“With major arts organisations cutting their ties to BP over its climate impacts, the museum can no longer argue that more ethical alternatives don’t exist,” a spokesperson said. “BP is fuelling conflict and the climate crisis: a publicly-funded museum should not be helping to clean up its reputation.”

In response, the museum said it understood “concerns about this kind of support” and said it was right that questions were raised, but added that without external support much programming and other major projects would not happen.

“Temporary exhibitions deliver tangible public benefit, deepening people’s understanding of the world’s many and varied cultures,” a spokesperson said. “This exhibition focuses on Troy as the ultimate universal story about the human condition.”

A spokesperson for BP said: “While BP supports the British Museum’s Troy exhibition, we have no curatorial input into the exhibition.” The company “completely rejects the outrageous allegations” made in the open letter, the spokesperson added.

Queens of Syria was praised when it toured the UK in 2016 for putting “a human face on the worst humanitarian disaster since the second world war”. None of the cast were professional actors, but after auditioning in Amman in Jordan, they went on to have a sold-out run at the Young Vic in London.


Lanre Bakare Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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