In the glass confines of Holborn’s Display Gallery, in the lower recessed space an animal-like skin lays slung and discarded over a length of thick rope. Created by artists Ackroyd & Harvey, Pelt is a poignant image of death. On one side grass of differing shades creates a tiger’s delicate markings, on the other a raw hide-like quality is exposed to the gallery with thin tethering ropes hanging limp towards the floor.

I saw the first incarnation of this artwork back in December displayed in another much larger space – the Old Sorting Office by New Oxford Steet. It had a different name: Living Skin and, in contrast to the degraded form it takes now, the tiger’s grass skin was displayed face up, pinned out, thick, and lush – the striped grass a living representation of the distinct beauty of the tiger and the tightly tethered skin a symbol of it’s precarious existence. Living Skin was part of Here Today…, a powerful exhibition to mark fifty years of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s world-renowned Red List of endangered species. Other artists who gave work to the show included Tracey Emin, Gavin Turk, Gordon Cheung and Laura Ford (she created a room of human sized stuffed penguins for the show – I defy anyone to walk through that and not be unnerved). Yet despite the prestige of the artists and the cause, Ackroyd & Harvey became increasingly unnerved about the underlying motives of the exhibition and took the decision to withdraw from the show as it toured the world – including a stop at the Venice Biennale. Asked to contribute to the Display Gallery exhibition that examined acts of transgression in art, they reconfigured Living Skin into its more degraded counterpart Pelt and used this to explore the sinister interests that lay behind Here Today… and why they decided to pull out.

“I can’t say it was a good day”
So what was going on? Last week Ackroyd & Harvey held a public conversation with the Financial Times Art correspondent Rachel Spence to explain the events behind the creation of Pelt.
Ackroyd begins the conversation describing how they first heard about Here Today… and why it attracted them

We felt ‘Here Today’s’ credentials and concerns were a good fit with our thinking. It was a global initiative and the situation for the tiger is precarious – the loss of Sumatran forests to palm oil and logging has pushed this species to the brink

They were excited by the chance to get involved and re-grow Living Skin first shown at the Serpentine Gallery in 1992 as testament to the strength and increased precarity of the tiger. Harvey explains

Tigers are incredibly resilient – in the right space and environment their numbers easily increase. They just shouldn’t be on the verge of extinction

The artists knew that the Azerbaijani magazine Baku was sponsoring the exhibition but didn’t think much more about it until the opening night. Harvey remembers that “it was only then that we became aware that we really should have done more research.” Ackroyd explains what they discovered there

The CEO of Baku magazine is Leyla Aliyeva and she was also a contributing artist to the show. We thought this is strange, the woman who has bankrolled the exhibition also has an artwork in it.

In the days after the opening the plot thickened further – another artist had an Azeri friend who told them how unhappy people in Azerbaijan were with the ruling family – then Ackroyd & Harvey made a startling discovery

We found out a week after the opening that Leyla Aliyeva, the sponsor of the whole Here Today… exhibition was in fact the daughter of the President of Azerbaijan. We typed Baku magazine and human rights into Google and a string of links came up with news of an award winning journalist having been imprisoned 4 days earlier. I can’t say it was a good day

It was at this point that Ackroyd & Harvey – whose work we have followed for many years and who participated in our project C Words at Arnolfini in 2009 – got in contact with Platform to find out more about Azerbaijan. We told them about the Aliyevs – how they have created a repressive regime, have held onto power by rigging elections and imprisoning dissenters and have been assisted by the silent support of BP who exploit the country’s oil & gas resources. We described the growing opposition movement of journalists, artists, writers, lawyers. How young, exciting and creative this movement is. We also spoke about the many people Platform know that are in jail or hiding – such as Khadija Ismayilova, the journalist they had read about. Through her investigations Ismayilova has done more than any other journalist to reveal the corruption in the country – carefully linking companies, deals and offshore accounts to Azerbaijan’s elites – including Leyla Aliyeva.

Seen through the prism of the Aliyev’s sponsorship strange things about the show suddenly made sense – why there was hardly any press for the exhibition despite the profile of the artists and the PR being handled by Freud’s one of the best companies? Why the info desk had lots of Baku magazines but no materials on the IUCN? Why the filmmakers creating a short about the exhibition hadn’t seemed interested in what the artists were saying – only in getting the publicity shots? Why was it that there seemed to be champagne receptions at the gallery most evenings with limos lining the street outside? Clearly those promoting Here Today… were not just concerned about endangered species, their key concern was promoting Leyla, Baku magazine and the whole Aliyev family. It was a place to hold lavish events, network and take some good shots. It seems that too much coverage in the mainstream UK media was avoided for fear it could have attracted the interest of journalists asking uncomfortable questions about human rights and corruption.

After several intense and stressful weeks Ackroyd & Harvey decided they could not continue their association with the show. They also turned down an offer from Aliyeva to buy Living Skin for the University of Oxford – choosing to transform their Living Skin into Pelt a powerful and disturbing work , exhibited in such a way as to suggest a cold and detached disregard of life that summons to mind the suppression and increasing violence people face daily in Azerbaijan and the co-option of artists by the highest bidder.

Leyla Aliyeva’s funding of the art world neither begins or ends with Here Today… Since establishing the English edition of Baku magazine three and a half years ago Aliyeva has been seeking to become part of the glamorous global art scene. Sometimes publicly sponsoring exhibitions, but more often discreetly buying art, influencing which artists get supported and which don’t.

Increasingly arts journalists from across the world are getting invited to Baku to attend shows at the Heydar Aliyev Centre (named after Aliyeva’s grandfather – the so call ‘father of the nation’, who came to power in 1993 after a military coup). The Center was designed by the leading international architect Zaha Hadid who apparently took inspiration from Heydar Aliyev’s signature. It was finished in 2012 but lay empty until 2013. The opening exhibition was a touring show of Andy Warhol’s work, marking the 85th anniversary of his birth. Most of the time the Heydar Aliyev Centre is unused – when I was in Baku last June it was shut. The Centre is only used by tinest fraction of the people of Azerbaijan, otherwise it is opened for the foreigners flown over to enjoy its white expanse. Many of Azerbaijan’s own artists are in spaces less seen by international visitors – its jails. The Aliyev’s understand the power of culture – not simply to legitimatise but to do something more intangible – to make a place, a person, a family seem intriguing, desirable. It is for the same reason that Azerbaijan is hosting the European Games in Baku this June.

The Aliyev’s are not alone – companies with terrible social and environmental records often sponsor cultural events. Just as oil companies, fast food outlets and weapons manufactures pay for their logos to be attached to football teams, theatres, plays and music festivals. We’ve been part of the growing movement targeting fossil fuel sponsorship in the UK but as Rachel Spence explained at the Display Gallery, there are many other examples. In 2011 a group of more than 130 artists, including Lebanese artist Walid Raad, said it would boycott the $800 million Guggenheim Museum being built in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, unless conditions for the foreign laborers at the site are improved.

It is clear that their pressure is having effect – as illustrated by the UEA refusing entry to the country of a US academic who has been active in the campaign. Last year at the 31st Bienal de Sao Paulo in Brazil fifty-five of the seventy participating artists wrote an open letter calling on the organisers to hand back the funding they had received from the state of Israel – in it they said

We reject Israel’s attempt to normalise itself within the context of a major international cultural event in Brazil

In the same year the Sydney Biennale cut all links with its major sponsor Transfield and the chairman of both the Biennale and Transfield quit his position at the Biennale after an artists’ boycott. The artists were protesting against Transfield as the company that runs many of Australia’s immigration centres. Just before the Biennale opened one person had been killed and another 77 injured at a Transfield run detention centre.

Pelt is a powerful protest against all those who seek to manipulate the arts – be it a fossil fuel company or an oil dictator. As Harvey says,

The oligarchs, the corporations, the rich – they have the power to determine what kinds of art gets made and what kinds don’t. That’s a form of censorship and it’s about time artists recognised it as such

Ackroyd & Harvey were one of the highlights of the Here Today… exhibtion. Out of the 50 artists in the show, they were one of the nine names chosen to be listed on the widely distributed advert. We know that their courageous choice to refuse to be part of the exhibition as it goes on tour, and to refuse to have their work brought by Aliyeva, will be an inspiration to artists in Azerbaijan, England and elsewhere in the world.

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For 25 years Ackroyd and Harvey have been using sculpture, photography, architecture and biology to create works that are preoccupied with the ecological and social. Their favored medium is grass – creating giant grass portraits (and tiger skins) using photographic photosynthesis. They’ve grown grass over the shell of a former British military building in Northern Ireland, the vertical interior of a London church and the exterior of the Royal National theatre. Currently they are growing two hundred oak trees from acorns collected from Joseph Beuys’ 7000 Oaks for an artistic invention that will coincide with the Cop 21 climate talks in Paris. Living Skin was first created in 1992, it was grown as part of a liveart event at the Serpentine Gallery, created hydroponically in grass. It was regrown for Here Today… as a response to the tiger’s endangered status.