Last night was the opening of this weekend’s BP Days of the Dead festival at the British Museum. It was a fantastic evening, a credit to the Museum staff for spectacular and respectful installations and performances, with more events to come. While there I saw a protest by the London Mexican Solidarity Group, in collaboration with BP or not BP, who use performance to raise awareness of sponsorship of museums by oil companies.
After a playlet involving the President of Mexico and some death-faced oil men, members of the protesters held up pictures of the 43 students who were ‘disappeared’ in Ayotzinapa by the Mexican state. I was standing next to some visitors berating the protestors: “They are not supposed to be here…this is awful…it’s supposed to be a party.” I pointed out to them the posters of murdered young people, suggesting they could be more respectful. The man in the group said “These people don’t suffer, they have easy lives. They don’t know what it means” then looked me up and down and said, “you look like you have a nice life, you are just using this cause to make you feel better.” He then went on to tell me that the protestors are ‘retarded’ for making a link between BP & oil and the human rights abuses in Mexico.
They were upset that their evening of glamorous fun at a Day of the Dead event was marred by a reminder of death. On the way they probably saw this Evening Standard article about how Day of the Dead is the hot new style for the Halloween weekend, pointing to Its inclusion in Spectre, the new Bond film. Film props from Spectre, giant skeletons, were displayed as part of the festival. When a museum celebrates a particular cultural tradition, one which is sacred because it honours ancestors and holds a space for grief, should it be appropriated for face painting, film promotions, costumes, dancing, margarita cocktails and chitchat?
The Museum itself had done pretty well at balancing the fun with reflection on the general gravity behind a festival of death. For example, the artist Betsabee Romero created an extraordinary installation, including an artwork dedicated to refugees.
The museum’s facade was transformed by Tupac Martir with candles and projections that made me see it as a global mausoleum to past peoples, to all our common ancestors.
It felt so different from the not-too-distant days when Mexico was only represented in the museum for ‘others’, the separate Museum of Mankind. However, there is more to be said about the political context behind this event, not evident from its programme and publicity.
Was the arguing man right to call the protestors ‘retarded’? What is the link between BP & oil and the death of too many in Mexico (and worldwide)?
Starting with a global perspective, climate change already kills. It will kill many more as global food shocks and extreme weather events grow. Our dependence on fossil fuels is the major cause of climate change. Oil companies, BP included, have actively sabotaged action to tackle climate change despite knowing about its disastrous potential 30 years ago. BP may well have considered that in sponsoring a high-profile death festival, some would point out that the oil industry and its emissions are causing death on a massive scale. Perhaps it didn’t care.
Mexico is very badly affected by climate change already. We’ve heard much about historic drought in California, but the news has not shown how it also affects Mexico. Desertification claims 400 square miles of farmland each year, and 80,000 farmers have been forced to migrate. Romero’s artwork dedicated to refugees has resonance local to her community.
BP is actively involved in exploiting Mexico’s oil resources, and this occasion has a political context. 2015 is the Dual Year of UK and Mexico, a significant cultural and trade celebration but which has a primary aim of enabling access to Mexico’s oil: “Mexico will be promoted as a dynamic country and an ideal destination for investment from the United Kingdom, particularly in areas of high interest such as energy.” A point on the website says that UK and Mexico share concern about climate change, but neither are doing enough about it. BP has been in Mexico for 50 years in partnership with state-owned Pemex, and is now being allowed to partner with other companies in a massive privatisation of state oil assets. This Energy Reform Act was passed in undemocratic circumstances and it will allow private companies tax breaks, royalties and legal impunity. The companies partnering with BP are responsible for multiple human rights abuses of indigenous people and campaigners.
Mexico is beset by corruption and organised crime, and the UN and campaigners identify ways the Government exacerbates rather than tackles it, with an increasing militarisation and reduction in the rule of law. It is estimated that 27,600 people have been ‘disappeared’ since 2007, and 151,233 killed in the same period. Add to this countless stories of rape and torture. The involvement of the state in disappearances such as the 43 students has been covered up but subsequently exposed.
It is this regime with which BP celebrates its partnership by sponsoring the Days of the Dead. This regime protects BP from its citizens suffering from oil exploitation. For example, thousands of Mexican fisheries are devastated by BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, but do not have the support of their government to sue. One of BP’s international advisers is former Mexican president, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, accused of responsibility for three massacres of indigenous people. Together, the UK and Mexican governments, and companies like BP, are working to use cultural heritage – institutions such as the British Museum and Mexican traditions – to cleanse their reputations and gain a ‘social licence to operate’, covering up these social and environmental injustices.
I’m interested to know if any of this will be discussed over this weekend, particularly at the study day on Monday. Do you think the protestors are retarded to discuss these issues? What do you think the British Museum could do to address their concerns?
This final photo credit Diana More