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A theatrical performance art piece scheduled to run at the Barbican in London later this month has become the subject of a protest, with 14,881 people (as of this writing) signing an online petition calling on the performing arts center to cancel the show.
Created by South African artist Brett Bailey and his company Third World Bunfight, “Exhibit B” focuses mainly on the racist practices of 19th and 20th–century colonial Europe, from human zoos to ethnographic displays, re-creating them with contemporary performers of African descent. By all accounts, the piece is brutal, as performers literally stand in for Africans who were abused by Europeans in all manner of ways — from a woman kept chained to a bed by a French officer for sex to a slave forced to wear a metal mask covering his face, with a pin running through his tongue.
Bailey positioned the performers inside tableaux vivants filled with everything from fruit to skulls to severed hands; they do not speak, but stare at the audience and make eye contact with visitors. The piece also extends the narrative of racism into the present day by including scenes of the mistreatment of contemporary African asylum seekers. Throughout it all, the only sound is the singing of four people whose heads are made to look decapitated, after a photograph Bailey found of the severed, mounted heads of four Nama tribesmen. The performers sing songs about genocide.
Sara Myers, the author of the Change.org petition to stop the Barbican’s performance of “Exhibit B,” sees the show as a replication of the racist tropes it claims to explore. “We wish to register our utmost disgust at what we consider to be an outrageous act of complicit racism with the Barbican agreeing to the housing and display of this production,” she writes. “White South African Brett Bailey claims his human zoo vanity project is ‘art’; just how are we as Black African’s supposed to respond to this?”
She goes on to add that the production “is nothing more than that of a racist white man taking the opportunity given to him on the platform that the Barbican is providing to repaint a picture that puts Black African people back into a space which we are superficially encouraged to believe we have been ‘freed’ from.”
According to Bailey and critics who’ve reviewed “Exhibit B,” much of the show’s power is meant to come from the silent interaction between performers and visitors. “Bailey does not consider any of the pieces complete without the addition of the spectator — the labels on each work even mention ‘spectator/s’ as one of their ‘materials,’” John O’Mahony wrote in the Guardian earlier this month. But some have criticized that as a weak point on which to hinge such a loaded performance: writing in Spiked, Tiffany Jenkins argued,
Exhibit B and Ganesh seem to be more about ‘me’ or ‘us’ than what they purport to be about. This makes for effective theatre – both are disturbing – but it also reduces the works to being about how we feel, rather than addressing how things are. The finger-pointing prevents the two productions from engaging with history and present-day problems, which both are ostensibly performed to address.
… Exhibit B and Ganesh Verus the Third Reich mainly provoke feelings of guilt. While this is not necessarily wrong, it is self-indulgent. Slavery, colonialism and the Holocaust were about a little bit more than how bad we feel about them.
Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the first time “Exhibit B” has been the subject of controversy. The show was met with protests in Berlin in 2012, and a post-performance discussion there turned into a heated debate. Even Bailey’s rehearsals often generate outrage, at least according to O’Mahony, who writes, “The only problem is that the young black performers, cast locally at every stop along the tour, aren’t quite getting it. ‘How do you know we are not entertaining people the same way the human zoos did?’ asks one.” Bailey, however, has questioned this portrayal of the rehearsal process, accusing the Guardian of “sensationalising sensitive issues.”
With the petition gaining momentum, Toni Racklin, head of theater at the Barbican, has publicly defended Bailey, stating: “We believe in artists’ right to free expression and are proud to be bringing this important work to London. … We respect people’s right to express their viewpoint but would encourage them to see the work for themselves and come with an open mind.” (The Barbican has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for further comment.)
In a way, Racklin seems to put more faith in Bailey’s work than he does himself. “For all I know, I could look back at Exhibit B in 10 years and say, ‘Oh my God, I am doing exactly what they are accusing me of,’” he told the Guardian. “But that’s the risk you take. It comes with the territory.”
“Exhibit B” is scheduled to run at the Barbican September 23–27.
Update, 9/5, 11:07am ET: The Barbican has sent Hyperallergic this written response to the controversy surrounding “Exhibit B”:
We appreciate that the work tackles controversial and sensitive issues; however Exhibit B aims to subvert and challenge racial stereotypes, not to reinforce them.
The director’s intention is to expose the abhorrent historical attitudes to race during the colonial era and to question how far our society has moved on by tackling contemporary issues such as segregation during the apartheid era in South Africa and the ongoing treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers. The final room of the installation contains testimonies from the performers reflecting on both their involvement in the piece and providing their personal experiences of racism and prejudice they’ve experienced in their own lives.
The Barbican made the decision to programme the work based on its artistic merit and the reception for Exhibit B in the cities it has toured from participants, audiences and critics has been overwhelmingly positive. Previous performances, such as in Amsterdam, Brussels and Grahamstown have attracted a diverse and politically engaged audience and it has been seen as a watershed work that provokes discussion about racism and the historical roots of prejudices.
We’re currently exploring ways we can hold a public discussion around the issues raised by Exhibit B during its London run.
The museum also directed our attention to a new article in the Guardian today in which the Edinbugh performers of “Exhibit B” defend the production and respond to the petition. They write, in part:
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.