Activist Tara Mariwany joined ONCA’s Gallery Supervisor & Communications Manager Susuana Amoah to talk about her role in the British Museum protest of the BP-sponsored Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria exhibition with BP or not BP?
Susuana: Hi everybody, my name is Susuana. I work here at ONCA as a communications manager and as a weekend gallery supervisor. Welcome to Solidarity, ONCA’s podcast series, on environmental justice and activism. In this episode you will hear me interviewing Tara Mariwany, an activist who took part in the massive protest against the bp exhibition of looted Iraqi artifacts at the British Museum this February. Before that, I just wanted to say that if you like what you hear please subscribe to this podcast and share it with your friends, thank you. It’s really odd to have my pal here, Tara, who’s just awesome. Me and Tara knew each other threw the student union and Tara kept on being awesome after she left! So I asked her to come to ONCA and talk to us about what she’s been doing, and that’s what she’s doing here today. I’ve got a few questions for you and then I’m going to leave it to the audience.
Tara: Ask away!
Susuana: Firstly, has there been any response, and if so what has been the response to the protest?
Tara: I’m not sure if BP has responded. The British Museum responded and said,
A – ‘would you rather that we get people to pay more money for entry into these spaces?’
or B – ‘would you rather not have these exhibitions at all?’
Susuana: And did they contact you and the protesters directly?
Tara: No they made a statement. Although they did come to us when we did the first action. The British Museum are funny that way. They live off the fact that they allow people to protest inside… ‘Look at us we’re so open and free and liberal and tolerant!’. And so they were actually fine with us being there and they gave a statement to the press later on saying ‘We encourage open conversation’, but their main argument was that it was a great opportunity to have this exhibition shown to the public. It’s not cheap either, it’s like a £15 entry or something. You know it’s a difficult argument to say ‘it’s a really great opportunity to have these pieces on show’. On the one hand, as an Iraqi I do want to see my culture, I do want to see my history but not at the expense of Iraqis there. But it’s also a privilege for me to see them when Iraqis back in Iraq can’t see them. Why should they be here? We shouldn’t be the main audience. It should be that Iraqis are exploring their own culture.
So as far as I know BP hasn’t responded directly but I could be wrong.
Susuana: In terms of the impact of these protests, what have you experienced in terms of interacting with the public at the protest and also online?
Tara: Online was brilliant. Well…yes. We also had some people making the classic arguments of, ‘Well, how did you get here, you took the train didn’t you, or the bus? You had to use oil…oh how are you tweeting then?’ But the majority was really well received. The November protest, because it was quite small, we were able to have much more interactions with people. They weren’t that intimidated to come to us and speak to us. Because it was the press launch…. it was weird, some of them were (cheering) while walking into the exhibition. Others were shouting ridiculous things, like ‘Oi stop it’. What was really beautiful was there was a lot of student groups who walked past, they’d be interested and they’d be looking, and some of their teachers asked if we would explain to the kids what we were doing. And so we had to speak to them, we’d say ‘yeah so a lot of these things were stolen’. And they’d be like ‘(gasp) Stolen?!’ So the majority was really well received at the November one. The February one was great because it was encouraging people to join. We didn’t have the core group who knew what was happening, who knew what we were doing. The tapestry ‘No war No warming’ was all around the entire main area of the British Museum, so people put them underneath their clothes to smuggle them in (those were the core people). But then you had a lot of people who were really interested and would look and say ‘Oh what’s this about’? We were handing out a lot of leaflets explaining what we were doing , but also with the chants and songs we were doing. So we were handing them out and people would join in and get their friends to join in. That’s how it got so big because we didn’t plan for 350 people to come all in one go. It was 80 people at the beginning, that were in the rehearsals beforehand. But once we got there it was huge because people were joining in and people were speaking out against it and joining in.
Susuana: So I guess BP has had multiple interventions in Iraq. What’s interesting is how do they talk around the whole looting aspect of the situation?
Tara: BP or Shell or Exxon, all these oil companies, are able to be there because of the corruption in the government and in the local government as well. The looting is just an aside thing that to them it’s just tragic, but to local government officials it doesn’t do anything for them to speak out against the looting. Now there’s more of a movement of repatriation, the U.S government for example gave back, I think, a thousand or so artifacts that were looted and ended up in the U.S. But there hasn’t been a mass movement to get these back .
Susuana: Do you think that’s due to a lack of resources and the fact that there’s bigger issues happening?
Tara: There’s things like in Basrah recently, 2 months ago or so, they opened the museum again, a lot of it was repatriated from different countries, like Lebanon and Jordan and a lot of it from the U.S. So there are some things (happening) but it’s on a small scale by archaeologist and by people working in this field. And then later on, when there is huge publicity around it, you’ve got government officials going ‘Yeah isn’t this great!’. Like you (they) haven’t done anything, if anything you (they) have prolonged the process of opening these things, of enabling people to see their history. But I don’t think it’s so much that there’s bigger problems, it’s just that these politicians are making their money either way, so why should they care about the return/repatriation of these artifacts. ……..
And it is quite dangerous to speak out against this, even though there’s been protests every friday in Baghdad for example, and in Basrah as well, the violence that they’ve been met with by militias who are run by high level politicians (make it) really really dangerous to speak out against it. It doesn’t mean that they’re not doing it. There’s a lot of beautiful videos around of people chanting. You might kill a hundred of us, you might kill 10 of us but it doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop fighting for our rights. But at the same time they are quite conscious that it is dangerous to speak, and if it’s not big numbers then the militias will know, ‘Ok, its this person and this person’. I mean during the Basrah protest there were lists floating around on social media of people partaking in the protest. And they were getting shot and kidnapped and tortured by militias which are in effect government forces because they’ve been given a lot of resources by government officials. The government officials don’t care. It is mainly the work that’s been done by ordinary workers .
Susuana: I’m interested in how you got in touch with grassroot activists as it is, like you said, really dangerous for them to be in these situations , of such a mainstream narrative. The BP website says… I was watching the latest Mummy film, Tom Cruise is in it, but the new Mummy is found in Iraq… it’s wild. ….. So I see those narratives and those BP narratives ,, so how do you make sure …..
Tara: It’s really through social media. That’s how the 2015 project started off. All the revolutions across the middle east and north africa, sudan, right now its all through social media. So you’ve got people sharing pictures, you’ve got people sharing… Earlier when I was putting the presentation together, the reason I went for the hashtag is that there isn’t that many mainstream narratives , that much mainstream coverage of these things, and even if there is it’s very one sided. But it really is like young people on the ground, communicating with each other via facebook, via twitter, via snapchat as well. There’s a feature on snapchat where you zoom into the map and you can click on the map or location that you want to see…. Could sometimes when I zoom in on Baghdad for example, I’ll see random people posting videos of people sleeping in the freedom square. Every middle eastern and north african city has a freedom square, and that’s where the main protests have been taking place in Baghdad for example. So they would be posting a video at night saying ‘Oh these people have been sleeping outside for 2 weeks now, come and support them, bring your friends.’ So that’s how I’m seeing it. But it is mainly facebook I think, less so twitter but that’s how they’re communicating, that’s how they’re telling their friends to come down. And then you’ve also got …. Get out onto the streets.
Susuana: Has there been any relationship, dialogue or solidarity between the more extreme groups (Extinction Rebellion) around what’s happening in Iraq?
Tara: When we were organising the February … I remember there were conversations around people from ER wanting to get involved. But we ended up deciding that no, it should be mainly people of Iraq descent. I guess it’s quite difficult to have these kinds of conversations if there isn’t that sensitivity about what we’re trying to gain from these actions. And when we were organizing the February one, we didn’t feel comfortable in allowing to join us in … I mean we were very open and wanting people to come and join, because we want to numbers and we want it to look right, and it’s amazing to get more support.
Tara: Yeah, and there were arguments/points around that we’re not comfortable with the way that they’re organised. And while they’re great at getting numbers out for big protests and stuff, we really really were quite conscious of saying … Even though we were talking about climate change, we were also talking about that this is to remember 16 years of division, we’re here to remember occupations and the impact of the war. And if a group wasn’t really vocal about that, we didn’t want them to water that message down. And that’s why a number of us were giving speeches about the situation in Iraq now. It was super super important to us that that message wouldn’t go away. Because it was mainly around, how dare they (BP) partake in such activities, and making themselves look better by exploiting the Iraqi culture. That’s why most of our reasons for taking action were all linked to BP, Iraq and climate change and their role in the Iraqi invasion.
Susuana: Great, thank you. (to audience) Does anyone have any questions?
Audience member 1: Thank you, it’s nice to hear this is such detail about that event. I was interested in ‘No War, No Warming’. I feel that was a strong way of bringing those issues together. And you were doing a campaign against the campaign in…. So do you feel that in the human rights movement, do you feel that bringing out the environmental justice side of things is… Do you think there is mutual reciprocal growth with the environmental activism and human rights activism with the stories dovetailing. For example what you were doing with BP as an example of what’s ….
Tara: It’s quite exciting that we were able to do that because I don’t think personally it’s been done in that model before.
AM1: Articulating interconnection between issues that are often separated.
Tara: Personally for example I haven’t been involved that much in climate activism in general. Because I don’t think it’s spoken to me, or I don’t think it’s spoken to the communities that I’m from or connected to. To me it’s impossible to separate them. But looking at the climate change movement it’s incredibly frustrating to see a disconnect. There’s this huge focus on ‘This could be us in 20 yrs’, but it already is us. It’s just us somewhere else, already affecting other people.
AM1: Who is us?
Tara: Exactly. And it’s also not me because I’m here, I’m not being directly affected. But I do have family who are in Iraq and that are being affected by climate change. And then you’ve also got human rights movements that aren’t seeing that combination. Iraqis are, Iraqis are heavily saying that, the fact that we’ve got more jobs, or we’re not being paid, it is to do with the fact that these oil companies are coming in and exploiting our resources, whilst at the same time killing our fish, killing our crops and so on. That’s why I don’t think it’s been done before in that manner. And I’m grateful for ‘BP or not BP’ for seeing that that is necessary, and giving us this platform to talk about these issues that are directly affecting Iraqis, and seeking to bridge that gap.
AM1: It’s quite a nice example because ‘BP or not BP’ have been trogging along with their campaign to get BP out of arts and culture for years so does it feel like a nice example of a dynamical or responsive organisation and learning?
Tara: Yeah And the way that we worked with them, we as in ‘Activists of the Anthropocene’, was super lovely actually. It was asking us what part of these issues would we like to present to the public, what do we want to tell people is happening. I guess the only thing they said was this is how we work which was a super friendly and open way, which means that it was … give our messages and give our points, and we were able to utilize those. I haven’t been involved in a group that’s been so kind in giving us that platform. And in a way that’s really exciting. We didn’t just have a project in front of the British Museum but it was quite creative in the way that we did it. But again it was a lot of us saying ‘How about we do this, how about we do that?’ It was a very collaborative effort with both the February action and the November action.
AM2: It kind of responds to what you just said about a creative approach that that intervention took. I know that Liberate Tate have been quite intentional about framing their interventions as artistic acts not just activism, and using that as a tactic to try and control the way that it’s reported and the way that it’s perceived by people (public). And i wonder in terms of your history and involvement in activism, do you think that’s an effective approach, is that something you want to do more of?
Tara: I think it’s effective to draw people in, but I think it’s got it’s flaws. I haven’t seen Liberate Tate’s work that much.
AM1: It’s because they got … out of the Tate. With that one institution.
Tara: I guess there’s a bit of a danger in watering it down. Because how are you sure that the message still stands? How do you ensure that you’re doing this because … Not just that this is an artistic expression.
AM2: I think for me personally what I found quite interesting is when I was at art school and making political work I was taught not to take a position, to leave room for interpretation and to not make artwork from the point of trying to achieve an objective because that was activism, not necessarily art. So there’s kind of a calamity there. But what was interesting about Liberate Tate was that they had a really clear objective which they achieved , but they were doing it in these really interesting ways. One of the things they did was carry the blade of a wind turbine down into the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern and try to gift it to Tate, as a part of the 1964 Museum act where anyone can give an object to be considered for the collection. Obviously Tate didn’t take it. But I hear what you’re saying, there’s a risk in it being watered down. But Liberate Tate is a good example of having a really clear message, a really clear objective, and continuously working towards it over quite a long period of time. But trying to counter the apathy about mainstream protest and try to engage more members of the public with their message.
Tara: No I agree. Like I said I’m not too familiar with Liberate Tate. And it is a great way to bring people in. I went to Goldsmiths, but I did a politics degree. So I saw the way in which some … would want to keep that element of ‘its just art’ and keep it open to interpretation. And to me it’s not direct enough. I want clear messages of this is what I want to achieve. Because I don’t want the waffle. I just want to get to the point. Because sometimes it just feels like a waste of time to me. I know it’s bringing in more people, it is a way of educating people about the issues that you’re trying to campaign on which is great, and if you do need more tactics to bring in more people from different groups and stuff. It just scares me sometimes of having that possibility of being watered down. I might work in some cases, like Liberate Tate. And some just take too long, and I know you can’t create change like that, but some things are more imminent.