Southbank Centre artists call for Shell to be dropped as sponsor on Ken Saro-Wiwa anniversary

11 Nov 2013 admin
One of the candle-lit vigils taking place in memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 9 over the weekend in the Niger Delta.
One of the candle-lit vigils taking place in memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 9 over the weekend in the Niger Delta.

A group of artists, musicians and authors who have all performed at the Southbank Centre have signed a letter (see below) calling on the arts institution to drop Shell sponsorship on the 18th anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 9.

The 21 artists, including actor Mark Rylance, playwright Mark Ravenhill, the art collective Guerrilla Girls and Nigerian novelist Helon Habila have expressed their concern about the reputational damage that is being caused to the Southbank Centre through its long standing association with the controversial oil company

The tenth of November was the 18th anniversary of the Nigerian state’s execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 9, who were organizing against Shell’s activities in the Niger Delta. Following long standing allegations of Shell’s involvement in the government’s decision to execute the activists, Shell were taken to court by family members of the Ogoni 9 in 2009, but subsequently settled out of court. In the Niger Delta, thousands of people took part in a candle-lit vigil to remember the Ogoni 9, and others protested about Shell’s refusal to pay an initial $1 billion to clean up Ogoniland as stipulated by a United Nations report.

One of the signatories of the letter, Matthew Herbert said

One of the things that is striking to me as someone who performs in these spaces is that over many years you notice the presence of Shell on the South Bank. Arts institutions are giving oil companies a social licence to promote fossil fuels. Climate change is getting to a pretty alarming stage and part of art’s responsibility is to point that out, to suggest alternatives, to imagine the horror of environmental disaster in ways that might stimulate action.

Celestine AkpoBari Nkabari from Social Action in the Niger Delta said:

The arts sponsorship that Shell is giving out is blood money, because people in Nigeria are suffering and even dying as a result of Shell’s operations.  Land is taken, livelihoods are destroyed, and the environment is devastated as a result of Shell’s activities. Decades of campaigns and protests and they have yet to change their position. All they think is about is profit. Arts organisations shouldn’t be complicit in giving Shell a good image – it’s an insult to our daily struggle against their impact in the Niger Delta.

The Shell Out Sounds choir perform in the Royal Festival Hall. Photo by Hugh Warwick.
The Shell Out Sounds choir perform in the Royal Festival Hall. Photo by Hugh Warwick.

The letter comes at a time when the Southbank Centre is facing ongoing controversy over its relationship with Shell.  The Shell Out Sounds choir have held a string of unsanctioned performances at Southbank musical events with songs about Shell’s various environmental and human rights controversies the world over, with a video of their most recent intervention being released over the weekend. Increasing number of events at the Southbank Centre have included the issue being raised by speakers, including recently by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, and throughout the activism weekend of Yoko Ono’s Meltdown festival.

The letter:

Today marks the 18th anniversary of the execution of the Ogoni 9, the Nigerian activists who struggled for justice against the pollution and repression caused by decades of Shell’s oil drilling in the Niger Delta. Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of the Ogoni 9, was a poet and playwright, and it seems unlikely he would have been supportive of arts institutions propping up the credibility of controversial oil companies – in the way that Southbank Centre currently does for Shell by accepting its sponsorship.

As artists who have all exhibited, presented or performed at Southbank Centre, who greatly value all that it provides to theatre, music, arts and literature lovers from around the world, we’re concerned that it damages its reputation through it’s association with Shell, whose name and logo are attached to events such as the Shell Classic International series.

A UN body asserted in 2011 that Shell should be paying an initial $1 billion to be cleaning up the five decades of environmental devastation that it has been responsible for in the Niger Delta, but Shell has yet to start paying. Until Shell has undertaken to provide financial recompense for the damage it has done to the Delta, it is inappropriate for cultural institutions like the Southbank Centre to accept sponsorship money from them. Shell is paying a small price to ‘artwash’ its public image, rather than paying the full amount needed to clean up its mess in the Niger Delta.

1. Mark Rylance, actor

2. Mark Ravenhill, Playwright

3. Matthew Herbert, composer/musician

4. Guerrilla Girls, artist group

5. Labi Siffre, songwriter/musician

6. Matthew Todd, editor Attitude Magazine

7. Laurie Penny, writer

8. Helon Habila, novelist

9. David Graeber, academic and author

10. Keith Mcivor, Optimo

11. Steve Chandra Savale, Asian Dub Foundation

12. Hayley Newman, artist

13. Emma Mahony, previous Hayward Gallery curator

14. James Marriott, author

15. Charlie Kronick, Greenpeace

16. Sai Murai, poet

17. Clare Solomon, activist

18. Zena Edwards, poet

19. Christine Binne, artist

20. Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Literary Curator and author

21. Sam Winston, visual artist

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