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Brett Bailey, artist
02 Dec 2014 15:38
Playwright and artist Brett Bailey has spoken about the protests against Exhibit B, currently showing in Paris, on his Facebook page. (Supplied)
This morning, in a video clip on an online forum, I watched close-up footage of protesters engaging in
struggle with French ‘robocops’ outside last night’s performance of
EXHIBIT B in St Denis, Paris. Someone fell.
Someone was dragged away.
On Thursday night, during the
premiere, five protesters breached the barricades, smashed through the
glass doors of the theatre lobby, and charged into the auditorium before
they were intercepted.
I watched the metal barriers being
unloaded from trucks on Friday afternoon, dozens of them; I watched the
battalions of black-clad riot police mustering; all with a sense of
How is this possible? That a performance work that
decries the brutal policing of Fortress Europe is relying on the
machinery of its uniformed protectors?
Before and during the
performances of EXHIBIT B the lobby of the Théâtre Gerard Philipe (TGP)
is like an operations room. The management and staff of TGP and Le 104
(the next presenter of the piece here in Paris) are abuzz;
representatives from several anti-racist forums are in attendance in
support of the performance, and ready to offer support to spectators who
are deeply moved by it. Security guards, the mayor of St Denis,
policemen, journos, audience …
I try to keep the cast calm.
Almost all of them are from Paris. They are upset. Angry that people are
so violently against their work. Angry that people want to stifle their
voices. EXHIBIT B relies on a gentle, intimate regard between
performers and spectators. Anxiety and excitement are
Outside, as darkness falls and the
performers prepare to take up their positions, the protesters mass
outside and the gendarmes line up: 250 policemen. We watch
apprehensively through glass doors across 20m belt of zigzagging
These protesters are people, as human and feeling
as any of us. Many of them – and their defenders – are protesting
because they are fed up with being second class citizens, fed up with
institutionalized racism, fed up with racial profiling and humiliation
in the streets and in the media, fed up with lack of access to
opportunities, fed up with not having platforms to express themselves,
fed up with being represented as ‘other’.
They demand to make
their views known: EXHIBIT B is racist; it reinforces stereotypes of
black people as passive victims of colonialism; it is made by a racist
South African. It must not be allowed.
Many others in the
crowd, it would seem – and just as human and angry – are those who have
been whipped up by manipulators whose intentions are violent.
In EXHIBIT B I investigate the way in which black people have been
represented, objectified and dehumanised by racist systems in order to
indoctrinate people; the way in which these racist systems continue to
operate today, here in Europe; around the world.
I choose to
portray black people in objectified form to demonstrate the violence of
I opt to perform the work in utter silence, to emphasise
how the voices of the colonised, the marginalised, the subjugated, are
I choose to depict some of the terrible atrocities of
colonialism so as to expose the realities of what really went on during
the so-called ‘civilization of Africa’ by Europe.
I choose not
to represent the white perpetrators of these crimes directly, because
white people have never been the dehumanised objects of such
In EXHIBIT B I instruct the performers
not to take on the horrors and humiliations of the characters that they
are playing, but to bring dignity to these people from whom dignity was
stripped; to become monumental icons of remembrance to these people,
communicating their power through their posture, their endurance and
their unfaltering gaze.
I ask them to envision themselves as
the spectators in this exhibition, gently watching the audience grapple
with the horror of realizing the brutality of such a system. I want them
to explode from the inside the stereotype of the passive, victimized
But out there on the floodlit street, beyond the
barricades, this is not understood. Those people have not attended the
None of this is really about Brett Bailey or
EXHIBIT B. This work is merely a sharp needle that pricks a skin bloated
with fury, frustration and pain. The ‘multicultural utopia” of Europe
is a myth.
The history textbooks still disguise the brutal systems of
colonization and dehumanization as glorious endeavours of salvation,
progress and philanthropy. Africa is plundered, raped, looted by global
multinationals, just as it was by the imperialists of the 19th century.
People have had enough.
Do I continue to stage the work in
cities such as London and Paris? So many of those who have attended the
work – black, white, brown – emphasize the importance of EXHIBIT B.
it ‘imperative’, ‘vital’, ‘life changing’; luminaries such as former
French World Cup star Lilian Thuram, founder of the Lilian Thuram
Foundation, Education Against Racism.
But having accumulated so
much contagious online polemic from London it is now polarizing people,
enflaming the far left and reconfirming the prejudices of the right. Is
its presentation really justifiable?
A public debate at TGP,
scheduled for last night, which would have featured viewpoints from
across the spectrum – and in which I was to have participated – was
cancelled because of the security situation.
We have managed to
persuade a very small number of those who stood against the performance
to attend it. They have emerged disturbed, moved, but acknowledging the
value of the work and that it should not be closed down.
majority of those declaiming against EXHIBIT B, however, refuse to see
One of them apologises to me for the misunderstanding.
Another, a member of the militant “Anti Negrophobe” group, says he wants
to see the perpetrators of colonial crimes, but otherwise he “detects
no vulgarity” in the piece, says that he can see it’s not racist. He
rambles at length about the lack of solidarity and community amongst the
local black population, rootless, bewildered.
against EXHIBIT B is misdirected. Why oh why wouldn’t these people
attend the performance when we reached out to them time and again?
I empathize with the people outside there, raising their voices and
their banners. My art stands for what they stand for. The installations
in EXHIBIT B of racial objectification, dehumanization, marginalization
and brutality are their stories.
Many of the 150 plus
performers that have participated in the work in 17 cities stand for
what they stand for. They have similar grievances and experiences. They
are those people. Their testimonies of prejudice suffered are typed up
and displayed in the final chamber of the exhibit.
and I am saddened and horrified and angered at the violence playing out
on the other side of the barriers. And I despise the unworldly
platitudes of support posted on my face book page by white suburbanites
who see confirmation of their prejudices in the actions of the
But I also believe in the right of artists to
speak uncomfortable truths, and to challenge status quos. And to
disturb. And to offend. I don’t want to live in a society in which we
silence ourselves in response to every politically correct outcry; in
which artists are struck dumb by self-righteous mobs.
that EXHIBIT B has polarized people.
I regret that a multidimensional
performance piece, which has meaning in the intimate dynamic interaction
between performers and spectators, has been judged on the basis of
I acknowledge that seeing a
photograph of a shackled black woman and reading that it is the work of a
white South African man can cause deep offence.
I wish that
photographs of EXHIBIT B had not been published, and that the only
access that people had to the work is through the living, vibrating,
profound experience of recognizing the equality and humanity in us all,
and the horrors of systems that continue to stifle this.
wish I knew that the man or woman who shed blood on the tarmac of St
Denis on Friday night for what he or she stood for is okay.
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