Reparations: Should We Allow Big Oil to Invest in Arts and Culture? #ChikaUnigwe

Reparations: Should We Allow Big Oil to Invest in Arts and Culture? #ChikaUnigwe

Parresia author, Chika Unigwe.

Reparations: Should We Allow Big Oil to Invest in Arts and Culture?


Chika Unigwe 

Keynote Address at the Writivism Festival 2015

[Delivered on the 19th of June 2015 by Richard Ali at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.]


Good evening ladies and gentlemen. It is an immense pleasure and honor for me to be here tonight, in one of my favorite cities – goat meat does not taste better anywhere else- and at an occasion celebrating literature.  Thank you to all who have made this possible.

It has been wonderful to observe first hand the renaissance of arts and culture all over the continent. In Nigeria, especially, where I am from, there has been a resurgence of cultural events and an increase in the number of literary prizes,  including the NLNG sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature with a prize tag of $100,000, making it one of the most generous literary prizes in the world. For any writer, the gift of time and space which that amount of money can give is a blessing.

But it is not only on the continent that oil companies are investing in arts and culture. For the past four decades, BP has contributed significantly to UK arts and culture, partnering with the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, Tate Britain and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Shell donates substantially to the Science Museum. Marathon Oil funds educational projects in Houston. And the list goes on and on.

Yet, in  recent years, there has been a  steadily growing discontent  among artists and cultural activists about the oil industry’s connection to the world of  arts and culture. They have spoken out calling on institutions from the Tate Museum to the New Orleans Museum of Art to draw an ethical line around sponsorship by the BBW (the Big Bad Wolf ie oil companies.)  The year that I won the NLNG Prize for fiction, I was asked by fellow artists if I felt  conflicted by it, “tainted” as it was by oil money..   There are artist-activists who are  cynical about oil money and arts sleeping together, as it were, and very often accuse Big Oil (as these companies are called) of attempting to whitewash their image by connecting closely to arts and culture. If Big Oil is trying to make reparations for its sin, these activists would not let it. Big Oil’s sin is a mortal one for which there can’t be, must not be any expiation. Writing in the Guardian in January, 2014, Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls on “people of conscience” to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change…

The fact is that Fossil fuel companies not only contribute to the devastation of our eco system, they have also been known to actively encourage oppression of citizens who get in the way of business as usual.  Nigeria is a case in study.

The Royal Dutch Shell began oil production in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria in 1958. Throughout the early 1990’s , at the behest of Shell, and allegedly with Shell’s financing, Nigerian soldiers used deadly force against the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta, in a bid  to quell  a growing movement against the oil company. We are all aware of the execution of the writer and activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, founder of MOSOP

The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP),  a human rights group founded in 1990 that is committed to using nonviolence to stop the repression and exploitation of the Ogoni and their resources by Shell, and one of nine activists unlawfully executed by the Nigerian government with Shell’s complicity.

When Archbishop Tutu calls on “people of conscience” to break ties with oil corporations, it understandably strikes a chord.

However, there is a certain polarizing militancy to such calls. It is as if Arts, popular culture, concern about the fate of our climate and oil must not and in fact, do not mix. Many of our fellow  artists-  who advocate a total rejection of Big Oil sponsorship do so because like a majority of us, they care about the climate as much as they do about arts and culture. They live in hope like I do that one day  green energy will not only become affordable but will completely usurp fossil fuels. Their concerns are legitimate. Their arguments are valid. But those arguments completely disregard the complexity of the issue. They disregard other valid facts:

Fact: Big Oil isn’t the only major business interest that is open to supporting the arts today. The Booker Prize was first sponsored by Booker McConnell , the English food wholesaler, viewed at some point as the epitome of colonial oppression in Guyana.

Arms companies sponsor galleries and arts festivals. The Nobel Prize (and its money) comes from Alfred Nobel, who was an arms manufacturer. Why the calls for one to be barred from investing in culture but not the other?

Fact. We are still years away from completely replacing fossil fuel with green energy. While we wait for such a time to come, at the moment we live in a world where we cannot avoid fossil fuel.. Besides, “oil and gas money” is our money too: every time we use electricity; every time we put gas in our cars, in our generators, we are contributing to “oil and gas money.” And what better way can these industries repay us than by ploughing back some of that money into our communities.

Fact. Public funding for arts and culture  – is either dwindling in some cases and non-existent in others. Big Oil’s money  has joined forces with contributions from other sources to combat what must be, and I use this phrase very seriously, an arts and culture famine. Galleries  like the Tate can operate  at the world-class level they do and remain free thanks in part to BP sponsorship

In the United States, John Paul Getty, founder of Getty Oil established the J. Paul Getty Trust in 1953. The trust,  which  is the world’s wealthiest art institution operates the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Foundation, the Getty Research Institute, and the Getty Conservation Institute.

In Nigeria, Chevron and NLNG sponsor literary prizes and writing workshops, driving a branch of arts that for a very long time, suffered drought.

Many of our governments on the continent have little regard for arts and culture. The renaissance that we are witnessing is mostly thanks to corporations and private initiatives.  How many museums worthy of the name  do we have in Kampala? In any of our big cities in Nigeria? How many art galleries do we have funded by the government? How many public libraries? One of my most poignant childhood memories involves meeting Tony Ubesie, a very popular Igbo novelist whose Igbo language novels were used in schools across the Igbo speaking parts of Nigeria in the 80[s and 90’s. Ubesie was also a newscaster, I believe.  One day, my father’s driver broke my father’s rule about giving rides to strangers , offered Ubesie a ride. I was the only other person in the car and the driver begged me not to tell my father. We drove considerably out of our way to drop Ubesie  off where he had to be. Apparently, his  only car had broken down and he was having trouble replacing it. Ubesie who ought to have been treated like a cultural icon: carried like an egg by the state government  by virtue of his contribution to Igbo language literature,  symbolizes for me the way our governments, my government  places little value on the arts. A few years ago, I was a guest at a literary event where the state governor  sponsoring the event chided writers and poets for wanting to live off their writing. To show how devoted he was to the Arts, he boasted of a theatre  he was building, to be named – not after any Nigerian writer dead or alive- but after a beauty queen.

Before former president Goodluck Jonathan initiated the Bring Back the Book campaign in 2010 (a project which already started dying down 2 years after it was initiated) , and apart from the Lagos International Book Fair, there was hardly any initiative to encourage reading (or writing) on a federal level

A nation that can allocate N0.5 million clothing allowance to each of its senators but cannot / will not maintain museums, libraries and cultural events is the enemy of the writer. It is the enemy of anyone with a conscience.

Accepting corporate sponsorship of art- is not the same as advocating non-criticism of corporations.  When John Berger won the Man Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G., he used the opportunity to criticize Booker McConnell. Berger called the award “distasteful” and accused Booker-McConnell of being responsible for the “modern poverty of the Caribbean.” donated half his £5,000 to socialist activists.

As long as the sponsorship has no implication on what art is made and on who has access to the space and the means to make and consume that art, as long as the sponsorship is not a bribe to buy our voices and our consciences, as long as it does not censor our pens, then by all means, let us use the money for the force of good.

Through our work as writers, we must actively demand that governments make funding available for our cultural institutions and for arts. We must continue to demand the highest level of environmental stewardship, not just from the oil companies but from our leaders too.  We must continue to advocate for oil and gas companies to diversify their investment portfolios and invest in renewable energy technologies. We must ensure that they do not pour money into lobbying governments to shy away from meaningful, from constructive environmental policies. These are what we MUST do.

What we must NOT do, and I cannot stress the necessity of this enough, is bar oil companies from investing in arts and culture.




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