‘Exhibit B’ : A poignant performance art piece, or just the latest incarnation of a racist ‘human zoo’?

Anyone who saw the Guardian’s recent Edinburgh Festival review of Brett Bailey’s controversial installation ‘Exhibit B’ – featuring African men and women sitting inside cages, with labels stating “The blacks have been fed”, and others chained to chairs and beds in equally dehumanizing poses (seemingly to challenge audiences to reflect on the brutalities of European racism throughout the colonial era, and to specifically critique the violent practices and enduring legacies of the 19th century “human zoos”) – might be interested in the online petition that has been established to oppose and boycott its forthcoming display at the Barbican Centre in London (23rd – 27th September 2014).

Exhibit-B-Photo

The petition’s organiser is Sara (Sar’z) Myers, and full details about why she and hundreds of supporters consider Bailey’s project to be a racist exhibition can be viewed online at https://www.change.org/p/sir-nicholas-kenyon-withdraw-the-racist-exhibition-exhibit-b-the-human-zoo-from-showing-at-the-barbican-from-23rd-27th-september

The following URL links to a 7-minute, online slide show presentation about ‘Exhibit B’, which provides a sufficient preview to enable prospective audiences and interested parties to determine for themselves whether Brett Bailey’s work is racist, or not: http://www.ukarts.com/Shows/Exhibit-A/

The link to the afore-mentioned Guardian review is also available here:http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/aug/11/-sp-exhibit-b-human-zoo-edinburgh-festivals-most-controversial

Exhibit-B-Photo-2

Beyond the mainstream UK print and online arts media, Simon Woolley’s comment piece for OBV (Operation Black Vote) explores more pointedly why ‘Exhibit B’ demonstrates numerous serious abuses of power in ways that have the perverse effect of perpetuating and reinforcing the very stereotypes and prejudices the South African artist Brett Bailey claims to be challenging: http://www.obv.org.uk/news-blogs/brett-bailey-and-new-white-supremacy

As Simon Woolley concludes:

“I guess it’s one way to get international fame, lauded by liberals, and thanked by Black actors for getting some miserly short-term employment.

But in the real world for the vast majority of Black Britons, and other Africans on main land Europe – where this exhibition has been equally controversial – Brett Bailey’s human installation that mimics the nineteenth century Victorian ‘human zoo’, which exhibited Africans in cages, is but a modern-day facet of white supremacy.”

– Simon Woolley (Director, OBV: Operation Black Vote)

As I see it,‘Exhibit B’ is a racist installation – both in its conceptualisation, and in terms of the actualities of its display – and its continued presence in high-profile arts venues around Europe (such as the Barbican in London) merely serves to reinforce (and does not challenge) centuries of physical and psychological racist violence. Audiences do not need to be shocked into reflecting on  the types of brutalities meted out to individuals like Saartjie Baartman, Ota Benga and countless other African (and African Diaspora) men and women over the centuries. A review of the actual archival documentation is harrowing enough!

If Brett Bailey and the Barbican really wanted to draw attention to the traumatic legacies of colonial violence, then they should have considered working with black-led organisations such as  FLT (Fondation Lilian Thuram: Éducation Contre le Racisme) to present an accurately researched anti-racist exhibition about ‘human zoos’ (sensitively curated, in consideration of the needs of diverse, multi-racial prospective visiting audiences) from which everyone could obtain insights – as the Quai Branly Museum sought to do when it collaborated with Lilian Thuram (and Pascal Blanchard from ACHAC) on the Paris-based exhibition, ‘Human Zoos/Zoos Humains: L’Invention du Sauvage’ ( 2012). Whilst I am aware that the Quai Branly’s staging of the ‘Human Zoos’ exhibition also had several major flaws, at least its overall approach was anti-racist instead of simply being sensationalist, and most certainly did not feature  provocatively dehumanizing, racialised, ‘live performance’ tableaux.

So, in view of the above, I fully concur with Simon Woolley’s summative assessment of Brett Bailey’s work, when he states:

“If Bailey had the decency to ask Black people here or anyway else if we thought this work helped Black people, or continued to degrade and perpetuate an inferiority myth? I would bet that 95% of Black people would say the latter.”

– Simon Woolley (Director, OBV: Operation Black Vote)

…and, in consequence, I’ve added my signature to the thousands of others who’ve supported Sara Myers’ petition to date!

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Carol Dixon

Carol Ann Dixon is an education consultant and academic researcher interested in African and Caribbean diaspora histories and heritage, cultural geography, museology and contemporary visual art. Her PhD dissertation/doctoral thesis is titled "The 'othering' of Africa and its diasporas in Western museum practices" (University of Sheffield, UK, 2016).

21 thoughts on “‘Exhibit B’ : A poignant performance art piece, or just the latest incarnation of a racist ‘human zoo’?”

  1. I’m not sure I understand what exactly makes this racist and not a comment on racism. I’m sure my white ignorance is showing, but I’d really love to be educated on the subtleties I am clearly missing (not sarcastic!)

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    1. One of the reasons why I cited Simon Woolley’s comment piece in my blog is because he articulates very clearly why Bailey’s installation is racist. Consider further Woolley’s additional statement: “Whichever way Bailey slices this argument, we’re still being objectified, albeit this time in an attempt to induce horror and guilt…I wonder if the ‘artist’ had also considered how can I, as a Black parent, take my nine year old child to see such an awful spectacle. What do I or other parents say to our children?”. So, regardless of whether you agree with Woolley, or me, every prospective viewer of ‘Exhibit B’, or reader of Brett Bailey’s explanations about his work – as well as the participants being paid to sit and be objectified as exhibits – needs to make up their own mind. Some people will find it racist (as I do) because of years of first-hand experiential insights acquired about the damaging impacts of racism, and because of the time invested studying the histories of racialised violence meted out in the form of ‘World’s Fairs’ and ‘Human Zoos’, etc. Others will not find it racist, but will need to reconcile for themselves why a white South African installationist deliberately chose to only recruit black and brown African participants for this piece, and why he would never have considered (nor been permitted by European art institutions) to (re-)present an historical trauma like the Holocaust in this type of way, using white participants, and continue to call it ‘art’.

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      1. Thank you very much for the benefit of your insight. I appreciate your time and thoughts very much. I understand better now… at least I hope I do!

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  2. I’m not sure about Sar’z Myers’ petition. It looks like this work highlights the dehumanising and objectifying treatment of black people in the past. I think it’s important to remember and learn from history and it looks like this exhibition will draw our attention to just how cruel and racist our society was in those days. I may be wrong but for now I’m not convinced that this petition should be signed. The article mention that a review of the actual archival documentation is enough but sometimes these sorts of shocking exhibitions are the only way to make people without much historical knowledge stop and think and reflect. I also think the reason the artist chose black and brown African participants for this piece is because he has witnessed racism against these people whilst growing up in apartheid South Africa – so he’d have much more experience in this subject than the topic of the Holocaust. Of course, I’ll have to actually visit the exhibition first before I can have a proper opinion on this – maybe my views will change.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the issues raised in the blog post, and also on Sara Myers’ petition. I welcome the opportunity to discuss ‘Exhibit B’ with you further, after you have visited the exhibition.

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      1. I will not be visiting it I do not consider this art, its not his right to tell our pain. You do not heal a survivor of rape by raping them again. This could not happen to another culture at some point someone has to stand up and say enough, well this time is now. Enough is enough this is not banning or censoring art this is challenging racisim. Our narrative is not just rooted in a part of our history we are constantly being reinforced to honour our past which we do in our traditions, I am exhausted with only ever seeing this image of us in chains. Tell the story be all means but for the love of god tell the whole story or you know what let US tell it, and do justice to our ancestors.

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    2. But stop and think and reflect about what? That black people were seen as savages and used for scientific experiments? That perhaps these scientific experiments were the premise to administer what we know as AIDS? This doesn’t change what happened or what is happening within the black diaspora. OK. So a white person is going to go to the exhibition and see it and feel bad for thirty minutes. But it doesn’t change that fact that there was colonialism, that it stripped the identity of black people and that we’re still scarred by this history. it doesn’t change that black people are still seen as savages (re: the Ferguson riots), it doesn’t change the killing by white cops of the black men America, it doesn’t change the positioning of black people in London, in Europe. it doesn’t change what’s happening in Libya, or the whole Boko Haram mess in Nigeria. it doesn’t do anything but reiterate a racism that still exists. And the fact that he’s doing his art installation across Europe during art festivals just means that he’s all about appraisal from art enthusiasts who just want to stand around and call this art.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you (thoughtsandopinionsofanangryblackwoman) for sharing your two comments in this thread (posted above). I fully support your stance about ‘Exhibit B’, have signed the petition, and continue to be vociferous in my calls for the Barbican (as well as Brett Bailey himself) to think again. I am pleased that over 12,500 signatories (& rising) have responded to the Change.org campaign … and I will continue to do my utmost to spread the word further. Strength in numbers is so vitally important…

      In addition, I’m also aware that those of us of African and Caribbean descent who work within the UK arts, culture, heritage and education sectors also have a particularly vital role to play in sourcing and documenting for the wider public the existing research and critical analysis (particularly by eminent black scholars – such as photographer-curator Coco Fusco (cf. ‘Only Skin Deep’), African-American Studies professor Leigh Raiford, Professor Hortense Spillers, curator and academic Dr David Pilgrim, etc.) – that has already been published about the need to challenge the insensitive and ill-informed pursuit of (so called) ‘art’ projects developed by those (often privileged white elites) who have no experience of racism, but who nevertheless actively encourage audiences to consume dehumanizing racist imagery, artefacts, installations and ‘live performance’ in the name of expressing personal creative freedom … and this scholarship can be used to strengthen arguments and offer wider contextualisation (and historicization) as to why ‘Exhibit B’ is a racist project.

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  3. Wow. Excellent post! I’m a white person, so I can’t really have a valid point of view about this “art,” but I am very uncomfortable that this was done by a white guy. I don’t think a white person can have the history, the background or the emotion to artistically interpret the dehumanization of blacks – past and present. I can hate racism, I can fight it, but I can’t experience it. Can you have Art without experience? I don’t think so.

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    1. Thank you, Ann. I am so pleased that you responded to the post. I personally think that all perspectives are welcome on issues like this that relate to ‘race’, irrespective of whether we have had personal and direct experiences of being negatively affected by racism(s), or not. One way or another – whether it is through privilege or through trauma – ‘race’ impacts on us all.

      As a supporter of the boycott campaign here in London, my main concern has always been that the ‘artist’ Brett Bailey (as a white South African) has not consulted with a diverse range of well-informed people (particularly black scholars) who have undertaken years of extensive, in-depth research about histories of racial violence, understand (theoretically, experientially and in terms of collective cultural memory) the sociologies of those past racisms and their resulting contemporary legacies and understand how to curate difficult knowledge in anti-racist as opposed to reductively stereotyped ways. A combination of the ignorance of Bailey’s privilege, and the arrogance of thinking that his singular perspective on being raised in a heavily racialized and segregated society leads him to behave as though his white, male subjectivities far out-weigh the many contrasting, plural perspectives of women and men of all ethnicities.

      I very much doubt that many (if any) arts organisations in London would have approved an anti-racist project on the histories of ‘Human Zoos’ if it had been proposed by an artist of African descent – largely because black artist-curators are seldom seen as capable of representing the ‘universal’ for all audiences, and (in consequence) are actively excluded from access to funding, power networks and senior decision-making opportunities, etc. Moreover, we have a situation here where (predominantly elite, white) arts managers and trustees continue to perceive black publics as insignificant ‘non-audiences’ for the arts…lacking sufficient power or commercial capital (in their eyes) to provoke the necessary development of more inclusive and pluralist programming that would actually benefit everyone. It will be interesting to see how all this pans out. Best wishes…

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  4. I am pleased to update the comment thread below this post with news that the journalist, anti-racist activist and Change.org petition author Sara Myers secured c.23,000 signatures from men and women in the UK to oppose the Barbican and Brett Bailey’s presentation of ‘Exhibit B’ (The Human Zoo) in London, Following a series of successful demonstrations, meetings and protests – which included a vociferous and clearly articulated correspondence campaign expressing the right to challenge any ‘art’ project perceived to be racist – the exhibition was cancelled for the duration of its scheduled London run (23rd – 27th September 2014.

    My heartfelt congratulations are extended to Sara Myers, BEMA, BARAC UK, Organisation for Black Unity (OBU), Operation Black Vote, PCS, Ligali, Uprise and all the other coalition partners, who deserve to be commended for the strength and courage they have show throughout the campaign to boycott the ‘Human Zoo’.

    Clearly, there is still a very long way to go before equality, diversity and anti-racist practices are fully realised in the UK arts and culture sector…but the successful action on 23rd September to cancel this exhibition in London is a considerable step forward.

    FYI: An ITV news release announcing the cancellation of ‘Exhibit B’ was published online at:
    http://www.itv.com/news/2014-09-23/protesters-force-cancellation-of-controversial-human-zoo-show/

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  5. I very much agree with the other comments, it is alienating and disgusting. If anyone would want to do any good to a community it would be, by presenting a positive image. No one ask this person to show such alienating and degrading ideas. Instead of moving forward he is trying to bring back these images from the social inconscience. Why would he only want to show such a degrading image, regardeless of all the positive happening for the black community. People are trying to move forward no backward.

    In addition, I am very sad that some black people would accept to play in this appaling demonstration, and topless !!! There is absolutely NO positive message behind this filth.
    We are trying to boycott this garbage in Paris as it is suppose to be shown at the end of November. Isabelle from Paris, France.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comments, Isabelle. I completely agree with you. Sara Myers led a very successful anti-racism campaign in London so that Brett Bailey’s attempts to display these degrading and racist ‘tableaux vivants’ in our city did not go ahead. In solidarity, I have signed the Change.org petition that was set up by John Mullen (Titled: Déprogrammer le zoo humain! Pétition adressée à la direction du centre culturel « 104 » à Paris, à la direction du Théâtre Gérard Philippe à Saint Denis et aux maires de Paris et de Saint Denis), and I wish you and your colleagues every success with the protests and the boycott campaign in Paris. With best wishes, Carol Dixon.

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