The South African artist Brett Bailey’s installation, “Exhibit B”, was supposed to open on Tuesday, September 23, at The Vaults, a multi-disciplinary space located in underground sections of London’s Waterloo station. The Barbican had hired out the space for Exhibit B. As guests arrived for the opening of Bailey’s show, which featured black actors chained and in cages, however, they were met by 200 protesters who had blockaded the entrance. The Barbican condemned objectors for preventing artists’ and performers’ “freedom of expression”, but eventually decided that the installation, which was slated to have a five-day run, should be shut down.
Exhibit B is described in PR material as critiquing “… the ‘human zoos’ and ethnographic displays that showed Africans as objects of scientific curiosity through the 19th and early 20th centuries.” Each of the twelve tableaux in the exhibit “features motionless performers placed in settings drawn from real life. Collectively they confront colonial atrocities committed in Africa, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of immigrants today. As spectators walk past the exhibits one-by-one, to the sound of lamentations sung live by a Namibian choir, a human gaze is unexpectedly returned.” If Exhibit B was the heartfelt, well-thought out critique of slavery and colonial exploitation that Bailey and the Barbican claimed it to be, why the furore? Why did people object to seeing “tableaux” of silent, entrapped human beings — albeit with the power to gaze back at visitors, inciting guilt, if not recognition of complicity, long-term repercussions on present day circumstances of the descendants of those formerly enslaved peoples, and the ways in which power and privilege continue to be built on these historical practices?
On the most obvious level, the exhibit has been criticized for its cavalier treatment of slavery and racial violence. The protests were well-organised, and supported by people across Britain; as The Guardian reported,
The campaign against the exhibition was led by Birmingham-based activist and journalist Sara Myers but drew support from around the country, including noted figures such as Lord Boateng, Britain’s first black cabinet minister.
We won’t revisit those efforts here. The best of the critiques about Bailey’s “provocative” work are here (by Kehinde Andrews), here (TO Molefe) and here (Esther Stanford-Xosei). And London was also not the first time that Exhibit B faced protests or public criticism by antiracist campaigners; at Playfair Library Hall, University of Edinburgh, it also faced serious criticism.
Maybe Brett Bailey’s lack of self-reflection is to be expected; after all, one of his former collaborators told The Guardian that he was well suited to mount the exhibition because as a white South African, he was sufficiently removed from colonialism. Then there was the bizarre revelation (in TO Molefe’s piece in City Press-linked above) that the South African government funded the work. But one of the most significant results of the Exhibit B debacle was that it galvanized people of color or of African descent in Britain; they organized themselves, and rallied to protest their lack of representations in the arts.All that ability to not only “return the gaze” but to also demand and expect change meant that the Barbican was caught with its pants down. Liberals, of course, love to give a ragged handout and claim that downtrodden recipients should be grateful. Tell them what’s what, and one becomes an “extremist.” Note how The Barbican framed the nature of the protests in its press release
… 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.
They also cried over the fact that its power and privilege was checked:
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.
So, who are the ‘extreme’ protestors imagined by the Barbican and who is silencing who?
It so happens that I know most of the protestors, many who are fluent on matters of race in Britain, and alert to their right, as citizens of the United Kingdom, to organised, and peaceful protest. The leaders of this protest are highly respected members of the communities they represent. I have personally heard these leaders, including Sara Myers (the initiator and leader of the ‘Boycott the Human Zoo’ campaign on Change.org), Lee Jasper and Zita Holbourne amongst them, speak on matters of race and the history of organised Black political protest in Britain. They are a diverse group of activists, role models, cultural figures, and intellectuals. Not quite the mob Barbican dreamed up in their Public Relations statements.
On the day of the official hand-over of the petition started by Myers, no one in a position of authority at the Barbican deigned to make themselves available to receive the petition handed to them (despite committing to do so), which was represented by 22,989 signatures of white and black British people and, most importantly, South African citizens.
The Barbican’s refusal to engage with protestors is itself a form of censure. It is one of the many forms that racial violence can take.
Arts producer Julia Farrington, writing about Exhibit B for indexoncensorship.org, makes it very clear that art institutions and funding bodies in the United Kingdom are certainly not thinking about Black artists, curators and audiences when deciding to run shows like Exhibit B. Farrington cites independent arts consultant Jenny Williams:
The black and minority ethnic community contribute around £62m per year into the overall arts budget. Yet, the current yearly figure currently invested in black and minority ethnic-led work is £4.8m.
Given this information, who exactly were the Barbican’s imagined audiences? Bailey (who has been given space to argue his case, including in The Guardian), contradicts himself about this: he has told us the work is ‘for the diversion of (mainly) white audiences.’ Speaking through the Barbican he has also told us: ‘Exhibit B is not a piece about black histories made for white audiences.’
And as Myers points out in her petition,
Bailey himself sounds unsure as to the impact of this work. In an interview with the Guardian he says: “For all I know, I could look back at Exhibit B in 10 years and say, ‘Oh my God, I am doing exactly what they are accusing me of.”
Bailey and The Barbican have demonstrated that they don’t care what the majority of black publics (especially in the UK) think. Neither Bailey nor the Barbican appear to have taken black audiences into account. Perhaps, for them, race is an abstraction, a commodity, a way to draw audiences, or just the right ingredient that creates controversy and notoriety – without, of course, affecting revenues for the institution, or causing aversion to (or worse, a bored dismissal of) the artist’s ill-conceived work.
Bailey assumed the right to represent and speak on behalf of Black Britons’ ancestors – be they of African, Caribbean, or South Asian descent, without consulting those for whom these histories remain a traumatic legacy. Part of Bailey and the Barbican’s public relations campaign is their insistent presentation of so-called objective evidence. They would have us believe that they cannot possibly be racist, and they are teaching us all about suppressed histories. After all, Bailey is fond of reeling out the responses of his black performers: performer after performer is brought out to say that they’re fine with what they are doing, that they understand what they are doing, etc. Of course, none of these exercises include references to the position of relative powerlessness in which an employee (the performer) is placed, having to speak in defence of their powerful employer (Bailey), from whom they are receiving payment, exposure, references for a next gig, etc. In any case, none of these defensive tactics carry any critical weight – not when those in the audience overwhelmingly decide that the patronising exercise of guilt-trauma-drama in front of them isn’t good enough. Full stop.