A group of artists who perform at the Southbank Centre are calling on it to drop Shell’s sponsorship, saying it is damaging to its reputation.
Twenty-one artists, musicians and authors have signed a letter calling on the Centre to cut its ties with the oil giant.
The petition comes in the wake of the 18th anniversary of Ken Saro Wiwa’s execution. Saro Wiwa, a Nigerian writer, was campaigning against Shell’s activities in the Niger Delta when he was executed along with eight other activists in Nigeria in 1995.
Shell was taken to court by family members of the ‘Ogani 9’ in 2009 following allegations of Shell’s involvement in the government’s decision to execute the activists. The matter was settled out of court.
Shell say the allegations are "entirely false and without merit".
Arts sponsorship is 'blood money'
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.
“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 21 artists who have signed the letter include actor Mark Rylance, playwright Mark Ravenhill and art collective Guerrilla Girls. In the letter they express their concern about the reputational damage being caused to the Southbank Centre through its longstanding association with the controversial company.
One of the signatories, musician and composer Matther 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."
An number of events at the Southbank Centre have raised the issue. The ‘Shells Out Sounds’ choir has held a string of unsanctioned performances and Canadian author Margaret Atwood spoke about the matter in August this year.
The 10th of November was the 18th anniversary of the Nigerian state’s execution of the campaigners. Shell continues to be subjected to global criticism for alleged environmental and human rights issues over its more than 50-year history of operating in the Niger Delta.
Southbank Centre: A shared commitment
A Southbank Centre spokesperson said: “As a charity, Southbank Centre relies on the generous support of individuals, trusts and corporate sponsors in order to help deliver its artistic programme.
“As neighbours on the South Bank for over 40 years, Southbank Centre shares with Shell a strong commitment to the regeneration of the area. Shell’s sponsorship of Shell Classic International enables Southbank Centre to continue to bring the greatest international orchestras to London.”
The relationship between the two organisations began in 2006 when Shell gave a donation to the Southbank Centre. It went on to begin its annual sponsorship of the 'Shell Classic International' concert series in 2007.
Shell would not specifically comment on the campaign to cut sponsorship, other than to say that it respects the rights of individuals and organisations to engage in a free and frank exchange of views about its operations.
However, a Shell spokesperson did say: "The 1995 executions of Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others by Nigeria’s military government rightly attracted international condemnation. No Shell company was responsible for those tragic events, and Shell attempted to persuade the Nigerian government to grant clemency following the convictions of Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues.
"To our deep regret that appeal - and the appeals made by many others - went unheard. We were shocked and saddened by the news that the executions had been carried out.
"We have always maintained that subsequent allegations made against Shell related to this case were entirely false and without merit."