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Indigenous campaigners challenge UK galleries

Indigenous campaigners from Australia, North America and West Papua have teamed up with Art Not Oil members to launch powerful critiques of the BP-sponsored British Museum and National Portrait Gallery.

Photo: Rodney Kelly addresses visitors in the British Museum, by Anna Branthwaite.

Firstly, on June 18th 2017, the Indigenous Australian campaigner Rodney Kelly visited the British Museum with BP or not BP? Nearly 250 years after the violent theft of his ancestor's shield, he was there to demand its return.

In a series of unofficial lectures, he told museum visitors how the Gweagal Shield is evidence of the colonial violence of the first contact between Captain Cook and the Indigenous peoples of Australia in 1770. He also criticised the museum for putting the shield - and other Indigenous Australian artefacts - into an exhibition sponsored by BP. You can watch the film of Rodney Kelly's visit on Facebook here and on BP or not BP?'s website here. You can also read articles in the arts media about the visit itself and the story behind it, and support Rodney's campaign directly here.

Next, on July 20th, William "Hawk" Birdshead, a leading Indigenous water protector from Standing Rock, visited the British Museum's North America gallery. The gallery is sponsored by JP Morgan Chase, one of the main funders of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, while the museum as a whole is sponsored by BP and other pipeline-financing banks. You can watch his powerful critique - filmed inside the gallery - of the way Indigenous objects are displayed and sponsored on Facebook here or via Real Media here. You can also see a short film of a BP or not BP? performance incorporating some of William Hawk's words on Facebook here and on the BP or not BP? website here.

Then on August 31st, performers (again from BP or not BP?) brought a portrait of the Indigenous West Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda into the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. The creator of the portrait - respected street artist Dale Grimshaw - gave talks to the public, and films of Benny Wenda and fellow West Papuan activist Raki Ap were played to gallery visitors. Both Wenda and Ap explained, via video, how BP is complicit in the illegal and violent occupation of West Papua by the Indonesian government. Performers then gave the National Portrait Gallery a spoof "Hypocrisy Award", to highlight the fact that the gallery's Ethical Fundraising Policy expresses concerns about taking money from companies with links to repressive regimes, and yet the gallery hosts an annual portrait award sponsored by BP.

The full story and film can be seen here; the film is also on Facebook here, and the performance was covered by Hyperallergic here.

These are just three recent examples of how Indigenous peoples on the frontlines of colonialism, fossil fuel extraction and climate change are teaming up with arts activists to challenge cultural institutions that they see as complicit with the forces lined up against them - especially when those institutions continue to hold, display, and in many cases refuse to return Indigenous objects, or brand them with the logos of companies that are actively putting Indigenous cultures and communities at risk right now.