A performance art piece set to debut in London that features black actors caged and in chains to mimic 19th-and 20th-century human zoos has been shut down because of vocal protest against it. The show, called Exhibit B, was to run at London's Barbican Centre from Sept. 23-27.
Last night as Exhibit B was opening at the Vaults it became impossible for us to continue with the show because of the extreme nature of the protest and the serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff. Given that protests are scheduled for future performances of Exhibit B we have had no choice but to cancel all performances of the piece.
We find it profoundly troubling that such methods have been used to silence artists and performers and that audiences have been denied the opportunity to see this important work. Exhibit B raises, in a serious and responsible manner, issues about racism; it has previously been shown in 12 cities, involved 150 performers and been seen by around 25,000 people with the responses from participants, audiences and critics alike being overwhelmingly positive.
Exhibit B, a work by white South African artist Brett Bailey, takes the idea of human zoos— in which Africans were displayed for the enjoyment and supposed ethnographic enlightenment of Europeans and Americans—and turns it on its ear, according to this August profile by the Guardian:
Bailey's installation aims to subvert the premise of the zoos by replacing its exhibits with powerful living snapshots depicting racism and colonialism: a black woman chained to the bed of a French colonial officer; a Namibian Herero woman scraping brain tissue out of human skulls; the slowly revolving silhouette of Baartman.
Of course, striking this philosophical connection requires putting actual black people in actual cages, which did not sit well with a lot of people, including some of the performers. "How do you know we are not entertaining people the same way the human zoos did?" asked one in the above-linked Guardian piece.
There are 12 tableaux vivants in the exhibition, featuring black actors who pose in silence within glass boxes, eyes fixed on visitors. The scenes include a man in a cage, a topless woman chained to the bed of a French colonial officer, and a reference to a Congolese man, Ota Benga, who was displayed in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo in New York.
Two hundred people protested in front of the Barbican yesterday, leading up to the show's aborted London debut. Additionally, an online petition calling for the exhibition to be withdrawn from the Barbican was signed by almost 23,000 people.
Petition author Sara Myers' description of the show is pessimistic, to say the least. It contains Suey Park-levels of flagrant reductiveness, and her interpretation of Bailey's art smacks of a non-artist's egocentrism. In her seeming conflation of the portrayal of racism and the endorsement of it, she also at times stumbles into agreement with Bailey's ostensible objectives. Meyers writes:
I'm a Black African mother from Birmingham. I campaign and work with my community to try to breakdown the stereotypes that black people have to struggle against in society on a daily basis. I want my children to grow up in a world where the barbaric things that happened to their ancestors are a thing of the past. We have come a long way since the days of the grotesque human zoo - we should not be taking steps back now.
If Brett Bailey is trying to make a point about slavery this is not the way to do it. The irony gets lost and it's not long before the people behind the cage begin to feel like animals trapped in a zoo.
This is simply an exercise in white racial privilege – if it isn't, then perhaps Bailey can explain why he didn't use white people in his zoo. After all, wouldn't him doing so be both more striking and send a clearer message?
Bailey didn't use white people in his zoo because he didn't use white people in his zoo. He's the artist.
White South African Brett Bailey claims his human zoo vanity project is "art"; just how are we as Black African's supposed to respond to this?
Agree to disagree? If you're so opposed to vanity projects, it's probably better to forgo any public speaking, even petition writing. It all feeds and affects the ego. (Not that Exhibit B is particularly vain, as vanity projects go—the ideas and imagery surely eclipse Bailey and his persona.)
Myers characterizes the show as:
...Nothing more than that of a racist white man taking the opportunity given to him on the platform that the Barbican is providing to repaint a picture that puts Black African people back into a space which we are superficially encouraged to believe we have been 'freed' from.
Given his attempt to draw the line from the past to the present, where racism still thrives to the chagrin of any of us with any sense of compassion or justice, Bailey would probably agree with Myers' use of the word "superficially." This seems to be a huge part of his point.
We as Black African people, do not need to be reminded or re-brainwashed into thinking we are less than.
Noted. But if we're going to talk about white racial privilege, well, a cornerstone of that phenomenon is being able to exist without ever confronting the racism that you don't suffer from. So maybe black people, or this particular black person doesn't need to be reminded of the overt hallmarks of white supremacy, but maybe this sort of literal translation of it could help those who otherwise ignore it. Not that art has any responsibility to help anyone do anything but think (and even that may be placing too much responsibility on it).
Here's a point where Myers presents a hypothesis as evidence:
What Bailey and his ilk (disturbingly many of whom are black) are doing is cynically courting attention to generate attention, thus sales. And they are using black bodies and the bloody history of white supremacism to do so. None of these artists would dare confront, say, Muslims or Jews in this way, because they know the potential ramifications for them. But it seems Black African people, continue to remain fair game, just as we have been for centuries.
But whatever, all of this worked. Myers is certainly entitled to her feelings, and Exhibit B certainly exists to provoke them. And Myers is also, it turns out, entitled to censor an artist and keep other people from experiencing his work.
Art is not beyond censorship when offensive in nature. Freedom of expression does not mean license to racially abuse. If we accept that "art should not be censored", could a London venue such as the Barbican host an exhibit of jihadist "art work", celebrating the glory of 7/7?
Exhibit B is offensive because it perpetuates the objectification of the black body that is a standard trope of society. A performer when the show ran in Poland had the experience of a group of men "laughing and making comments about my boobs and my body. They didn't realize I was a human being. They thought I was a statue."
The group apologized but this hardly mitigates the objectification; which apparently would have been OK if she were a statue. The exhibit invites liberals to feel the "discomfort" of their colonial history while fawning over the naked and prostrate black body.
This objectification is defended by Bailey as a strategy to "provoke audiences to reflect on the historical roots of today's prejudices and policies". Even if the motives are pure, the vehicle is tainted. This exhibition reproduces the idea that black people are passive agents to be used as conduits for white people to speak to each other.
Of course the content of Exhibit B is detestable—it would be dishonest to portray racism as anything but. The worth of Bailey's work is evident in the dialogue it has provoked—that there is a nuanced argument at all to be made against Exhibit B (as opposed to an outright dismissal) proves how challenging it is. It has made so many people think so much, and to discontinue it is to disallow thought.
On Bailey's part, he told the Guardian, "I'm creating a journey that's embracing and immersive, in which you can be delighted and disturbed, but I'd like you to be disturbed more than anything."
It has not been my intention to offend people with this work. To challenge perceptions and histories, yes. Explicitly to offend: no. But I work in difficult and contested territory, territory that is fraught with deep pain, anger and hatred. There are no clear paths through this territory. The terrain is littered with landmines. Does that mean that as an artist I should not enter? I am a white South African who spent my first 27 years living under a detestable regime of racism – albeit on the side of privilege. As an artist I continually reflect in my work on that system and its ramifications and implications. I will not make anodyne works that pander to status quos, and that do not confront people with realities that it is all to easy to leave festering in the dark.
Do any of us really want to live in a society in which expression is suppressed, banned, silenced, denied a platform? If my work is shut down today, whose will be closed down tomorrow?