Three Extinction Rebellion activists clad only in their underwear lay down on a white sheet on the floor of the main hall of the NPG’s Ondaatje wing. Protestors then slowly poured a washable black liquid over their bodies while onlookers applauded, and Gallery workers appeared to close the doors to the room.
While the performers lay doused in ‘oil’, 19-year-old activist Eden Rickson read a poem asking the gallery to terminate its sponsorship deal with British oil company BP. “Who will there be left to see, who will there be left to paint, if we have no earth and no people?”, Rickson asked. “We cannot be artists on a dead planet… Yet right now the National Portrait Gallery is tied to a company brutally funding the end of our world”, he continued, “With compassion we ask you to change. Oil means the end, but art means the beginning”.
After about five minutes, the performers stood up, towelled themselves down and cleaned up the space. The unauthorised performance rounded off two weeks of civil disobedience led by the Extinction Rebellion movement in which over 3,300 activists were arrested in London and internationally. It was also timed to coincide with the end of the BP Portrait Award exhibition.
Protest over BP’s sponsorship has grown louder since 2017, when campaign group Culture Unstained submitted a formal complaint to the NPG. The complaint argued that NPG’s renewal of the BP sponsorship contract breached the Gallery’s ‘Ethical Fundraising Policy’. In July this year, a group of acclaimed international artists including Rachel Whiteread and Anish Kapoor signed an open letter to the NPG to protest BP sponsorship.
In a statement responding to Sunday’s performance, the Gallery acknowledged the “ongoing debate around BP’s sponsorship of the arts” and said it was “listening carefully to voices on all sides”. The Gallery also said BP encouraged the work of artists around the world through its support of the NPG Portrait Award and enabled free admission to the award exhibition.