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. The camera zoomed in on a splash of blood on the white paint of a road marking, and my blood ran cold.
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 unreality. 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 counter-productive.
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 barricades. 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 these systems.
I opt to perform the work in utter silence, to emphasise how the voices of the colonised, the marginalised, the subjugated, are stifled.
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 systematised racism.
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 black body.
But out there on the floodlit street, beyond the barricades, this is not understood. Those people have not attended the performance. 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.
Call 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.
The vast majority of those declaiming against EXHIBIT B, however, refuse to see it. 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. The outrage 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.
I empathize, 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 protesters. 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.
I regret 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 2-dimensional photographs.
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.
And I 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.