Critics have argued that he may be South Africa’s most important theatre director. Africa’s Rimbaud. Now, London-based petitioners are baying for the banning of Brett Bailey’s work Exhibit B, which is to be hosted at London’s Barbican Centre this month.
For years Bailey has earned critical respect for his fierce engagement with site-specificity and classical theatre, bringing the two together with a resounding moral thunder that has deeply affected audiences and disturbed their complacency.
Midway through its European season, Exhibit B has elicited invective so vicious that the public has petitioned the London’s Barbican Centre to drop the work. A development of his work Exhibit A, which was staged at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2012, Exhibit B engages the history of ethnographic display, featuring live performers.
The work places black actors in several live tableaux as though they were artefacts, recreated from natural history museum-like exhibits from the 19th century. Each tableau is accompanied by a label with statistics such as provenance, age, height and sex. It also features an installation of a group of singing “disembodied heads”.
The performers said in a statement: “We find this piece a powerful tool in the fight against racism. We chose to do it because, as art does, it impacts people on an emotional level that can spark change.”
‘Lightning conductor for outrage’
“They say there is no such thing as bad publicity,” Bailey told the Mail & Guardian this week. “But Exhibit B has been presented in 12 cities around Europe over the past four years. There was some controversy in Berlin and a good deal of discussion greeted the work in other centres; it has never before been a lightning conductor for outrage as it is in London. Last year in Amsterdam it became a rallying point for anti-racist activists, who saw it as a landmark work in their battle against increasing racism in Holland.
“In Exhibit B, I intended to make people aware of systems of racism, objectification and dehumanisation that have legitimised brutal policies of plunder, control, exclusion and extermination; systems that are still in place today. I’m sorry that because of sensationalistic media reports and social media hysteria, many have been alienated from the work without having seen it.”
Such a response by the public is not unprecedented. Harold Rubin was put on trial for blasphemy in South Africa in the 1960s for a drawing of Christ. More recently the ANC organised a march against Brett Murray’s Spear, which depicted President Jacob Zuma with genitalia exposed, and performance artist Steven Cohen was denounced for striding about Paris with a rooster tied to his penis.
Bailey did not expect this response. “I thought there might be some bristling of hair; I hadn’t anticipated a feature in a national UK paper – the Guardian – sensationalising sensitive issues.
“I work in difficult, contested territory fraught with deep pain, anger and hatred. It’s littered with land mines. Because 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 – may I not reflect in my work on that system? Should I restrict myself to making anodyne works that don’t challenge status quos, that don’t confront people with realities that are all too easy to leave festering in the dark?
“The comments speak to me of the mob hysteria that can be generated on social media. And of intolerance: people calling for a work of art to be banned because it expresses a view they don’t agree with – in one of the global capitals of democracy!
“Viewpoints are viewpoints. I do not portray the world in binaries of black and white, good and evil. The petitioners insist their viewpoint is correct. That Exhibit B should be denied a platform. Most of them have not even attended the work.”
Exhibit B will be at Moscow’s Museum of Modern Art in October and in France from November.