Brunei Gallery, 2019
A rainblow flag above the entrance to the SOAS Brunei Gallery, April 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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3 Comments
  1. Avatar
    Layla 1 week ago

    Renaming the gallery does not remove the opportunity to raise crucial questions. SOAS decided to have a petition to change the name, I think it should just be done, in the spirit of The SOAS community and the morals we all believe in. To even wonder if the name should be changed is ridiculous. If the solution is to attack the states and organisations that support this regime, then renaming the gallery is one way of achieving this. It may only be symbolic, but it still challenges the regime by minimising praise by having a gallery named and celebrating Brunei. As for the dichotomy, surely even if this was true, having an “Us,” that stands for human rights, solidarity and respect for human life, versus a “Them,” that are willing to punish people by death for their private preferences, is not a harmful dichotomy. I understand the point made with regards to reperpetuating such a dichotomy, but in this context, it’s a respect for life (literal and what people chose to do with their lives) versus capital death over sexuality.

  2. Avatar
    Ruth Grego Vieira 5 days ago

    This is stupid, changing the name of Brunei Gallery? the millennium generation that can be all wiped out with a single peanut jar is getting more and more ridiculous and out of control!
    People should stop mixing women’s rights and problems with that of some men. The student unions in the UK are more like fascist groups, they impose their agenda and no one else can express differently.
    women have been oppressed by everything possible imaginable, if we were going to change names, we would have to change the name on everything on the planet. Homosexuals and women have very different background of oppression, unless when speaking they are only talking about Lesbians, because they are the only who besides oppression for sexual orientation, they suffer oppression based on biological sex, for being women!
    this was the way men got rid of women’s rights and everything they have achieved so far! that all is ending thanks to the millenniums ignorance and arrogance, who are throwing down the drains everything women’s have achieve with the so called LGBTQIA+ which is just a disguise for men’s rights groups.

  3. Avatar
    Colin 5 days ago

    Do you think any authoritarian regime or company dealing with them care a hoot about SOAS changing the name of an art gallery?

    Remember that the name Brunei represents the people of Brunei. Keep the name, fight for the people of Brunei who are suffering under such authoritarianism, and return the money to the Sultan with interest.

    Also do this for all issues with all donors.

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