OPEN LETTER TO
HARTWIG FISCHER AND THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
IN REGARDS TO THE
BP EXHIBITION, TROY: MYTH AND REALITY
18th November 2019
Dear Hartwig Fischer and Trustees of the British Museum,
As one of the performers and the director of the groundbreaking play ‘Queens of Syria’, we were initially thrilled to discover that a film of our work would be included in your upcoming exhibition ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’. Our play, an adaptation of Euripides’ Trojan Women performed by thirteen refugee women from Syria, opened at the Young Vic and went on a sell-out tour across the UK in 2016, finishing at the New London Theatre with a full house of 1,000 people. It brought people together across Britain from different backgrounds, ages and cultures, who listened to what had been a marginalised narrative about one of the most pressing and urgent issues of our time. Over three years after it was first performed, we never expected that this piece might have a new life and be displayed in such a prestigious museum.
It was therefore a devastating blow to discover that BP would be the title sponsor of this exhibition, with the oil company’s brand sitting alongside our work. BP’s business has had devastating impacts on people and the planet, and it has taken decisions that have undoubtedly contributed to conflict, refugee crises and the worsening climate emergency. As many in our sector are now distancing themselves from BP, we feel we have a responsibility to speak out too and make clear that our work should not be used to clean up the company’s tarnished image.
The press release for your ‘BP Exhibition’ highlights how ‘the Trojan War, like many wars after it, resulted in widespread destruction and the displacement of people’, and that labels for the exhibition will ‘illustrate ways the characters in the Trojan myths still resonate with displaced people and soldiers today’. Yet it is no secret that BP backed the second Gulf War, eyeing opportunities to take control of oil reserves in the region. Indeed, for over 100 years BP, and its backer the British government, have fuelled conflict and colonialism in the Middle East in order to access its oil reserves. BP has directly profited from the widespread destruction and displacement of people, like the thirteen 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. BP continues to invest the vast majority of its capital in new sources of fossil fuels, and plans to spend some £41 billion in the next decade exploring for new oil that we can’t afford to burn. And we know that just some of the many impacts of the worsening climate crisis will be the further displacement of peoples and the possibility of greater conflict.
For Reem, the role of oil companies such as BP in fuelling conflict and displacement is deeply personal:
‘I was born in Syria in 1991 and, at that time, the Gulf war was raging in the Middle East. My mom told me a story which left a huge impact on me, that when I was sick as a baby, with my mother afraid that I might not survive, she was unable to turn on the only heater that we had. Because of the war, fuel was missing everywhere, even in the gas stations, and people would queue for hours to get some very expensive fuel. A war was raging for oil in the land of oil, and yet there was no oil for a heater to warm a mother, that sick baby and her two sisters. Meanwhile, my father was out of reach as an officer in the Syrian army, because of that same damn war, a war that was all about oil and money. And it’s just like the war that has been raging in Syria for 8 years now, which again is all about the damn oil, money and power!’
We know that the curators and producers who have chosen to include our work within the exhibition share and appreciate the values that underlay the creation of our play: to give a platform for people to speak for themselves and to do so without pity or victimisation. However, it is clear to us that these values are not ones shared by BP.
Today, many working in the arts and cultural sector are reaching the inevitable conclusion that partnerships with oil companies must become a thing of the past. Just last week, the National Galleries of Scotland announced that it would no longer host the BP Portrait Award because it recognises that ‘we have a responsibility to do all we can to address the climate emergency’. However, while the trustees of other institutions such as the Royal Shakespeare Company have ended their relationship with BP, you inexplicably continue to stand by your sponsor and, by extension, the fossil fuel industry. In doing so, you place artists such as ourselves in an impossible position, where we must decide whether it is worse to try and 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.
We wish to add our voices to those urging you to sever your ties to BP and believe this would be a positive expression of the museum’s commitment to addressing the climate emergency and standing with those who are already experiencing its impacts.
Reem Alsayyah (performer) and Zoe Lafferty (director)
With thanks to Culture Unstained www.cultureunstained.org