Celebrating women’s leadership in anti-oil activism as part of #SilverAction

2 Feb 2013 admin

Diane WilsonIf you go down to Tate’s oil tanks this Sunday, you’re sure for a pretty amazing piece of participatory performance art.

Hundreds of women over the age of sixty will convene in The Tanks at Tate Modern as participants in Suzanne Lacy’s new performance artwork Silver Action. Women from across the UK who took part in significant activist movements and protests from the 1950s to 80s will share their personal stories in a live and unscripted performance of staged conversations.

Wow! That’s quite some concentration of stories, experiences and insight to be gathered in one space. In her statement on the endeavour, Suzanne Lacy said that:

The more I learn about the history of women’s activism throughout the United Kingdom, the deeper I am moved by the depth of women’s engagement in creating a civil society. Just look at what women fought for: housing, the right to live without constant threat of violence, fair wages, the recognition of so-called minorities and socially disenfranchised people, to protect the environment, to stop war – the list goes on and on. Of course men were in almost all instances critical too, but the leadership roles of women in these social transformations begs the question: why are there still so many fewer women in public leadership roles?

Aside from the performance on the day itself, Lacy also said that what’s equally important is, “how questions are raised and the conversation is nurtured within public life.” In this spirit, and given the location of the performance in an institution that has been taking sponsorship money from oil company BP for more than 20 years, it seems a good opportunity to celebrate and highlight the leadership roles that women have played in activism targeting the BP’s devastation of communities and the environment the world over. At the same time, this blog can hopefully contribute in some small way to the ongoing problematization of any sort of exhibition or event that takes place within Tate walls while the sponsorship relationship is maintained.

A quick disclaimer – this blog post can only act as a snapshot of a handful of amazing women who have been doing this sort of thing – it would be great if people have any other examples or stories to add in the comments section.

Firstly, lets start with Suzanne Lacy herself, and mark our respect for her, not only for organizing one of the most interesting and engaged performances since the Oil Tanks opened, but also for being one of the 171 artists that signed a letter in the Guardian in 2010 calling on Tate to drop BP as a sponsor. The letter said that:

We represent a cross-section of people from the arts community that believe that the BP logo represents a stain on Tate’s international reputation. Many artists are angry that Tate and other national cultural institutions continue to sidestep the issue of oil sponsorship. Little more than a decade ago, tobacco companies were seen as respectable partners for public institutions to gain support from – that is no longer the case. It is our hope that oil and gas will soon be seen in the same light. The public is rapidly coming to recognise that the sponsorship programmes of BP and Shell are means by which attention can be distracted from their impacts on human rights, the environment and the global climate.

Lacy’s willingness to add her name to this call is all the more commendable when she could conceivably have blown her chances of working with Tate in projects like this. Other artists who might fear jeopardizing their cultural capital by speaking out against BP could see this as a sort of example.

Secondly, I wanted to mention the amazing Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation shrimper who began fishing the bays off the Gulf Coast of Texas at the age of eight. By twenty-four she was a boat captain, before her concerns about marine pollution lead her to embark on a life of environmental activism and trouble making. One of the co-founders of Code Pink, Wilson made headlines in 2010 when she interrupted a Senate hearing of Deepwater Horizon disaster by pouring oil over herself and calling for the arrest of then-BP-CEO Tony Hayward who had just started giving his testimony. More recently, Diane Wilson has been part of a hunger strike as part of the resistance to infrastructure being developed in the US to transport and refine tar sands from Canada.

One of the most inspiring social movements to coalesce in recent times is Idle No More in Canada, where First Nations members have come together to blockade roads and hold flashmob traditional round dances in urban centres, asserting indigenous resistance to repressive legislation being introduced by the right wing government, and increasingly mobilizing First Nation resistance to the devastating tar sands extraction being expanded across Canada. One of the striking features of this movement has been the leadership of women, with the original social media campaign that sparked it off originating with four women. With BP being significantly involved in tar sands in Canada and looking to expand it’s stake, it seems apt to express admiration for the many women leaders in Canada’s environmental and indigenous rights movement organizing against the horrific impacts of tar sands. This is Heather Milton Lightening of the Pasqua First Nation at the She Speaks tour of indigenous women on tar sands in 2012.

Finally, a little closer to home, is one of my favourite performances of art-activist group Liberate Tate, who for the last three years have been making dramatic, unsolicited live art in Tate galleries that interrogate the nature of the BP/Tate relationship. The 2010 Tate Summer party was celebrating 20 years of BP sponsorship just weeks after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Two women from the collective infiltrated the party wearing bouffant floral dresses, and amidst the columns and canapes, staged a spill of their own in the middle of Tate Britain, with an oil like substance spilling out from underneath their dresses from rubble sacks secured by strap-on harnesses. Confused onlookers speculated as to whether it was a performance put on as an official part of the evening.

The last example, was meant to be the final one, but I don’t think I can leave this post without at least referring to the incredible leadership role played by women in the Ogoni struggle against Shell’s decades-long history of pollution and conflict in the Niger Delta. According to the article The Role of Women in the Struggle for Environmental Justice in Ogoni

On the April 25, 1997, the Federation of Ogoni Women’s Associations (FOWA), an umbrella organization for all women’s groups in Ogoni, the oil rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria, made a resolution. It stated “It is resolved that Shell cannot and must not be allowed in Ogoni…we say no to Shell as it remains Persona non grata in Ogoni.” This pronouncement, amongst five other resolutions, were made and signed (those who could not sign, thumb printed) by over 300 women leaders in Ogoni who represented FOWA’s 57,000 registered members.

So, wishing an inspiring, provocative day on Sunday for all the performers and visitors at Lacy’s Silver Action, and here’s to loads more of the same in terms of bold, creative and badass women taking on the oil industry.


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