Brunei Gallery: Should the name be changed in light of new laws punishing homosexuality in Brunei?

Brunei Gallery, 2019

On 3 April 2019 the Sultan of Brunei introduced new laws to his country making gay sex punishable by stoning to death.

The draconian measures have sparked an intense debate on campus.

In an official statement posted on the SOAS website the School stated:

“The Sultan of Brunei made a donation to SOAS in 1995 to build the gallery and the gift was received before any introduction of Sharia Law in that country.  The donor has no role, influence or involvement in the policy or operation of the gallery or the wider School.”

In this post, two SOAS students put forward their perspective on the campaign to change the name of the Brunei Gallery.

Stuti Pachisia – Yes

As recently as March, the Tate group of galleries announced that they would no longer be accepting money from the Sackler family, rejecting a £1 million donation. The family, whose donations to museums and universities around the world have led to several rooms and galleries being named after them, are also the owners of Purdue Pharma, the producer of Oxycontin, the drug largely responsible for the opioid crisis in the USA, which has led to millions of deaths. For a gallery to reject the money of a company over something that ostensibly has nothing to do with art itself points at something significant: like art, galleries are not neutral.

By funding the arts and education, high-profile donors seek to whitewash and neutralise the organised violence perpetuated by these spaces. The Brunei Gallery was never a neutral space. As part of a specialist university which exhibits complex Asian and African experiences, it fuels expectations of liberalism from a ruler that has been historically violent towards dissenters and historically persecuted communities. In naming the gallery, there is a recognition of the Sultan of Brunei as a donor, not simply the nation itself. The dissent and activism that SOAS prides itself on is immediately undercut. Instead, the institute becomes a tacit participant in this project of neutralising violence.

The latest in the string of draconian laws that the Sultan of Brunei has implemented – that of punishing gay sex with stoning and flogging – deeply and personally affects the SOAS community, several of whom identify as queer. To refuse to acknowledge how problematic it is for SOAS to associate with such a regime is in opposition with the non-discriminatory safe space that SOAS desires to be for queer people. Furthermore, to continue exhibiting (quite literally) the experiences of queer people in a gallery named at the behest of a donor who is actively persecuting them, is an act of violence.

If SOAS truly seeks to create safe spaces for its LGBTQIA+ community, then it cannot have a space named for someone actively persecuting them. By renaming the gallery, there is a chance to recognise the inherent violence in this and make a much-needed statement against it.

Bella Saltiel – No

Hassanal Bolkiah, the sultan of Brunei, is attempting to impose inhumane interpretations of Sharia law by making homosexuality and female adultery punishable by death. Understandably, students at SOAS are calling for action against the Sultan. On campus, many are choosing to show solidarity with those persecuted under these laws by petitioning the university to rename the Brunei Gallery (named after the Kingdom after the Sultan donated funds to the College in 1995).

Of course, we must put international pressure on Brunei to rescind these laws. Moreover, standing in solidarity with those affected in our own community should be the universities primary concern. However, is renaming the gallery the right way to do this?

Renaming the gallery is risky in these troubling times. Today, as we debate these ideas, a shrinkage is being imposed on Muslims across the world. Conservatives have already used these laws as an excuse for Islamophobia.

It is no revelation that LGBTQIA+ people and women are at the centre of the cultural war – framed as victims of “barbaric” and “backwards” societies. Since September 2001, when George W Bush promised to fight the War on Terror through military force, human rights have been used to excuse atrocities in the name of democracy and peace. But The War on Terror has not just been fought overseas. Domestic policies – used to protect national interests – are aimed against Muslim communities, creating a conflict based on cultural/religious differences. Scholarship at SOAS has been integral in the struggle against Islamophobic policies and media representations. Perhaps, renaming the Brunei Gallery will only serve to re-perpetuate this destructive “us” and “them” dichotomy.

Moreover, in renaming the gallery, vital opportunities to raise crucial questions are lost. We should be asking: Why is sexuality an effective form of State control? Who beyond the Sultan benefits from these laws?

The Sultan is attempting to impose cruel, punishing laws, that attack the sexuality of women and non-conforming people. Why? Certainly, this brand of Sharia is not cultural. Nor does it act in a vacuum. The Kingdom of Brunei is a small country. It is an oil-rich state, however, in the last years oil revenues have fluctuated. Brunei has just come out of a four year recession with 2019 forecast for more economic ‘volatility’. I am by no means the first person to note a correlation between economic stability and authoritarian state practices, particularly in oil-rich rentier states.

I would argue that a more effective form of action is to attack the states and companies who support this authoritarian regime by lobbying some of Brunei’s main oil customers to challenge the regime. Although symbolism matters, unfortunately, re-naming the gallery will do little to tackle the primary causes of authoritarianism in the Kingdom.

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