'A devastating blow': Syrian performer condemns BP's sponsorship of British Museum exhibition

Reem Alsayyah is one of 13 refugees in 'Queens of Syria', a film included in 'Troy: Myth and Reality' at the British Museum

'The Wounded Achilles' (1825) by Italian artist Filippo Albacini is on display as part of 'Troy: Myth and Reality' at the British Museum in London. EPA
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Syrian performer Reem Alsayyah has condemned BP's sponsorship of Troy: Myth and Reality, an upcoming exhibition at the British Museum.

Alsayyah, who fled the civil war in Syria, is one of the performers in the film Queens of Syria, a modern re-telling of Euripides's Trojan Women, which is featured in the exhibition, following a sold-out run at the Young Vic theatre in London in 2016.

In an open letter to Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, and the trustees, Alsayyah said it was a "devastating blow" to discover that BP would be sponsoring the exhibition.

"BP's business has had devastating impacts on people and the planet," the letter, also signed by Queens of Syria director Zoe Lafferty, reads. "It has taken decisions that have undoubtedly contributed to conflict, refugee crises and the worsening climate emergency."

The letter goes on to describe how BP "has directly profited from the widespread destruction and displacement of people", a theme at the heart of Queens of Syria, which is performed by 13 female Syrian refugees.

Alsayyah and Lafferty conclude the letter by claiming BP's sponsorship of Queens of Syria had placed them in "an impossible position" and call on the museum to "sever your ties to BP".

“We must decide whether it is worse to try and remove our work from the exhibition, taking away the chance that this show can shine a light on the harsh realities that our team are living under,” it reads, “or to allow our work to help artwash the impacts and crimes of BP, a multinational oil and gas company that has wreaked havoc on this planet and its people.”

Responding to the letter, the British Museum said it understood “concerns about this kind of support” but stressed how important BP’s sponsorship was to their arts programming.

“Temporary exhibitions deliver tangible public benefit, deepening people’s understanding of the world’s many and varied cultures,” a spokesperson said.

“This exhibition focuses on Troy as the ultimate universal story about the human condition. It features compelling characters and timeless themes: heroism and violence; love and loss; hope and despair, addressing themes as relevant now as they were 3,000 years ago.”

Troy: Myth and Reality is due to open as planned on Thursday, November 21.

A spokesperson for BP said: “While BP supports the British Museum’s Troy exhibition, we have no curatorial input into the exhibition.” The spokesperson added that BP “completely rejects the outrageous allegations".

The open letter is the latest in a number of high-profile protests against BP's sponsorship of major arts institutions. In June, actor Mark Rylance resigned from the Royal Shakespeare Company over its relationship with the oil company. In July, Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif resigned as a trustee of the British Museum, stating that it was, "born and bred in empire and colonial practice, is coming under scrutiny […] and yet it hardly speaks."

Added to this, National Galleries Scotland announced last week that it was severing ties with BP after the BP Portrait Award show in December.