Brett Bailey, "Exhibit B" (screenshot via Vimeo)

Brett Bailey, “Exhibit B” (screenshot via Vimeo)

Citing “the extreme nature of the protest and the serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff,” the Barbican in London has canceled its production of South African director Brett Bailey’s controversial installation “Exhibit B.” In a statement published on the organization’s website today, the Barbican wrote that “it became impossible for us to continue with the show” after the opening last night was blockaded by 200 protestors. The exhibition features critical reenactments of racially charged historical scenes, including caged and shackled black people.

Though critically lauded — the Guardian called the work “unbearable and essential” — nearly 23,000 people signed on to a petition calling the show an “outrageous act of complicit racism.” The BBC reported that police were summoned last night to the site of the protests, which prevented the opening from taking place, but no arrests were made. Protest (and petition) organizer Sara Myers told the publication that they “shut the door and stood outside the door and drummed and chanted and blew our whistles and blew our horns.”

Controversy had been brewing in London over the charged subject matter of the traveling exhibition, which is headed to Moscow and Paris next, since earlier this month. The principle of reenacting historical racial oppression has, in different contexts, been staged to subversive ends. For example, in 1992, the artist and writer Coco Fusco performed “The Year of the White Bear,” a “pseudo-primitivist” display with performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Though Bailey’s project shares this point of departure — a critical reexamination of the ethnological exhibitions of the 19th and early 20th centuries — the success of Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s project probably had little to do with flippant appeals to freedom of expression.

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

2 replies on “Controversial Barbican Show Canceled After Protest Blockade”

  1. I don’t know. But I suspect that when Bailey says that he works in “difficult and contested territory”, or when the show Exhibit B is consistently called “controversial” (by the Barbican for one), I suspect that these descriptives are misleading. I don’t know how contested it is for a show to demonstrate how awful and dehumanizing we have been to fellow human beings, particularly using the justification of ethnic difference. It’s actually hackneyed and unsurprising.

    And I have felt this way about a good deal of work that purports to draw a through line from slavery practices to the present moment. So Kara Walker’s silhouettes after the third or fourth time seeing them strike me as quite uncontroversial. It would be controversial certainly if you showed a dark male body hung with his genitalia cut off and shoved in his mouth. That did happen in the American South, but is not much discussed or depicted.

    Exhibit A seemed to promise to just regurgitate and reiterate forms of presentation of the other that have repeatedly been shown to be bankrupt. So, there is a worthwhile questioning of this rather sensational retelling of an old story. I don’t think a show SHOULD be shut down because it is empty of ambition to do more than has been done before, but we do need to realize that race and ethnicity are major wounds in the human psyche and if you pour salt into that wound …

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