The manner in which Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B show in London was cancelled goes beyond the realm of protest and finds itself in the arena of censorship. This is according to international and local performance and theatre representatives, following the cancellation of the white South African theatre director’s live exhibition on Thursday.
Expressing their concern at the cancellation of the exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London last week, the representatives issued a statement on Monday saying they “fully support this theatre work, which is a critique of colonial exhibitions and human zoos”.
Among the representatives are National Arts Festival artistic director Ismail Mahomed and the Barbican’s director of programming, Louise Jeffreys.
“We [the representatives] recognise that artistic work such as this one, which is rooted within a political context, will spark criticism,” Mahomed told the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday. “We also recognise that some people were unhappy with the show.”
But instead of cancelling the exhibition, Mahomed recommends that dialogue around the topic of slavery be encouraged. “Shutting down the exhibition is not a good way to go about it.” Instead, he said, “seminars, discussions and having educational material on the topic” is preferred as a way of engaging with audiences and artists on the matter.
Exhibit B – a development of Exhibit A, which Bailey staged at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2012 – is a live exhibition on slavery. Aiming to tell the stories of African slaves and asylum seekers under British colonialism, Exhibit B uses black actors in a series of live scenes.
According to Robyn Sassen for the M&G: “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’.”
While calling for ongoing dialogue between artists, arts management and communities, the representatives said: “We refute the idea that Exhibit B re-enacts these spectacles of dehumanisation and exotification. It is in no way a racist art project but obviously and completely the contrary.”
Despite ongoing protests outside the Barbican Centre, the representatives of the 14 theatres, festivals and arts organisations – from South Africa, Scotland, France, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Austria, Holland, Poland and England – said: “The actions of the protesters have completely missed the point of Exhibit B … It was received in a positive way by a very diverse and international crowd. The effect on this audience is important as the piece challenges ethnocentric beliefs and questions our relationship to otherness today.”
Birmingham-based activist and journalist Sara Myers led the campaign against Bailey’s show, according to the Guardian. Britain’s first black Cabinet minister, Lord Boateng, was among those protesting against the showcase.
“This was a vanity project. Having people objectified in this humiliating way was always going to cause a fierce reaction,” said Simon Woolley, co-ordinator of Operation Black Vote and a former equality and human rights commissioner. “It is a shame that it reached this stage but the feeling was that no one was listening.”
In a Guardian piece by Bailey, he wrote that the exhibition was cancelled on Wednesday following protest action at its premiere at the Waterloo Vaults on Tuesday night “in which protesters tried to force the doors of the venue, and security guards determined that they could not guarantee the safety of performers, staff and spectators”.
Speaking to the M&G on Tuesday evening, Woolley said: “Even when we agreed to disagree with the art gallery, we made it absolutely clear we were not calling for a ban or censorship. We [protesters] wanted Bailey and the Barbican to realise: one, they were not helping us and two, we found it deeply offensive.”
Challenge to artistic rights
Bailey said after the cancellation that he felt his right to address racism in his own creative way, as a white South African, had been challenged.
“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 said.
“Despite what Bailey says,” said Woolley, “he never really cared about what the majority of black people thought. If so, why wouldn’t he come and speak with us? Why? because he already what we would say.
“That being: the methodology of his work always placed the African in a position of humiliation, and perhaps even worse than that, in a position of complete and utter powerlessness. We argued that this imagery might be good to induce white liberal guilt, but it did nothing for black empowerment.”
Earlier on Monday, London performers who participated in Exhibit B expressed their disappointment in the show’s cancellation. “We are appalled, outraged, angry … extremely angry as artists, as human beings. We cannot believe that this is London in 2014. We are appalled that Exhibit B has been cancelled because of the actions of some of the demonstrators.”
The actors and performers said that the 23 000 petitioners who complained that Exhibit B objectified human beings had “missed the point”.
Speaking to the M&G in early September, Bailey said: “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.”
The production is scheduled to move to other countries and Mahomed says discussions about what is being exhibited should be held among community members, theatres and performers ahead of the live show to avoid a repeat of the Barbican Centre saga. – Additional reporting by Reuters