Brett Bailey: The intention of Exhibit B was never hatred

Theatre director Brett Bailey, who recently had his Exhibit B exhibition in London cancelled, feels that his right to address racism in his own creative way, as a white South African, has been challenged. Bailey has released a statement following a campaign to have  his exhibition, which depicts black people as artefacts in 12 live tableaux vivants, shutdown. 

In the statement Bailey says: “Those who have caused Exhibit B to be shut down brand the work as racist. They accuse me of exploiting my performers. They insist that my critique of human zoos and the objectifying, dehumanising colonial/racist gaze is nothing more than a recreation of those spectacles of humiliation and control.”  

“The vast majority of them have not attended the work.” he says. 

Mixed reactions
Exhibit B has been presented in 12 cities around Europe over the past four years. Earlier this month Bailey told  M&G there was some controversy around Exhibit B in Berlin but that in other cities the exhibition sparked discussions around racism and became a “rallying point for anti-racist activists.” 

“It has never before been a lightning conductor for outrage as it is in London,” he said. Bailey insists his intentions with Exhibit B were not to project “hatred, fear or prejudice”, but to “explore the machinations of systems of racism and how they dehumanise all who are touched by them.”

The main focus of Exhibit B, according to Bailey, “is current racist and xenophobic policies in the EU, and how these have evolved from the state-sanctioned racism of the late 19th century.” 

Not only is he accused of racism, but he has also been accused of exploiting Exhibit B‘s performers. In the performance piece, the black actors stand/sit still in the tableaux vivants, for hours while being stared at by spectators. Just like one would do at a zoo. 

“The rehearsals [for the performers] include exercises in endurance, self-awareness and meditation. There is a lot of care, coaching and compassion. I have testimonies from many of the 150 or so performers, who come from all walks of life, class and professional status, about how valuable, enriching and empowering the experience has been,” says Bailey in his statement.

‘We are not objects’
Exhibit B‘s performers responded to the controversy in a joint statement earlier this month. “As performers in Exhibit B, we stand perfectly still and are stared at for hours.”

“The references to human zoos and ethnographic displays in the media are a simple but narrow description of what we believe the show to be. At first glance at the materials, it is easy to assume that we are nothing but objects, repeating the worst of the racist and dehumanising aspects of the human zoos referred to in the petition(s) to cancel the exhibition,” they said in the statement. 

“Standing, exhibited in this manner, we can state explicitly that we are not objects during the exhibition. We are human, even more so when performing. We find this piece to be a powerful tool in the fight against racism. Individually, we chose to do this piece because art impacts people on a deeper emotional level that can spark change.” they said. 

Exhibit B has been referred to as a “vanity project”, an “unbearable” sight  “because of the suffering it depicts”. Campaigners claim to have collected 20 000 signatures on a protest petition against Exhibit B

“I do not approve of bullying and censorship. I stand against a few loud-mouthed people wielding so much power in the mistaken belief that they are speaking for a silent majority – or saving the unenlightened. This is dangerous for the arts and for society,” says Bailey.

“I shudder to think that an artwork made in love against the hate of racism could spark a violent riot. Do any of us really want to live in a society in which expression is suppressed, banned, silenced, denied a platform?” he said.

“My work has been shut down today, whose will be closed down tomorrow?”

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