In his condemnation of the decision by Amazon to warn viewers that some Tom and Jerry cartoons includes racist content, Prof Furedi from the University of Kent said this was a form of "narcissism" about individuals asserting their own importance. He continued; "A tolerant society needs to discuss disturbing art,"
But what if we do not live in a tolerant society? What if it’s an indisputable fact that we live in racist society?
Consider the recent case of Pam Aister, the Arizona teacher fired for defending 9-year-old Malachi Gillis against racist bullies who referred to him using the N-word and other offensive epithets.
What should we do when a group of five boys tell a nine year old that you are a 'monkey' and that “You belong to a zoo”?
I start with these two stories because they are current – October 2014.
Place them alongside the draconian decision of the British government to proudly declare it will ignore human rights rulings and instead adopt a British bill of rights if it is re-elected in 2015 and we can have a better sense of the political context in which Diasporic Africans live.
Up until very recently I've been conflicted on whether to write an opinion piece about Exhibit B. You see in 2005, I recall being unable to get on a plane to fly over and help stop another ‘human zoo’ event taking place in Augsburg Zoo, near Munich, Germany.
Back then I wrote to the organisers in support of the protestors but in her response, Barbara Jantschke, the zoo's director insisted that the intent was not to open an 'ethnographic' display. The event manager Abdelati said 'I don't find anything objectionable... [w]e are treating it as a cultural festival... There is even a program for children.'
Sadly the ‘Voelkerschausen’ themed event still went ahead.
Nonethless, we did have a little success.
Tahir Della, a protester belonging to the African German Group ISD said; 'The zoo scaled down this event after the protest so that there were no mud huts or grass skirts, but it is still not enough. The decision to select the baboon house as the backdrop to a celebration of African culture is totally unacceptable…'
As you can imagine, it was not the result I and many others were happy with. If you have ever been to the UCL’s Grant museum of Zoology then you probably know that fear as you walk through its collections and brace yourself for the possibility of coming face to face with a semi-dissected African skull. In both these cases a central question around ethics remains - when, who and where do we draw the boundaries?
Nine years after that fiasco in Germany and although there are no animals included in Exhibit B’s installation, the controversial premise of gazing at live, semi-naked, muted Africans (although this time instructed to hold a pose for up to a 100 minutes at a time) across various staged habitats for the enlightenment of a paying audience returns.
In this case, Brett Bailey, the architect of this modern day zoo project insists that each willing “performer physically characterizes an objectified human being.” Well each participant in the protest physically portrayed an objecting human being.
In its support of Bailey the Barbican suggested that his approach was a valid means to explore “the abhorrent historical attitudes to race during the colonial era”.
The fact that it is only Africans whose image as human beings are being so horrendously objectified is ignored. The fact that it would be impossible for any conscientious human capable of empathising with the oppressed to be dispassionate about a very real recreation depicting ‘the brutalities of European colonialism’ is missed.
In using live performers/cheap labour there is no space to suspend disbelief, no luxury of reminding yourself this is only a film, no opportunity to cover the canvas or spoil the ballot.
By placing this installation in a publicly funded urban environment it either co-opts us as a willing/silent supporter by proxy or forces us to object to and indeed even stop it proceeding.
This was not a private enterprise taking place in a cultural and ethical vacuum. It was an installation that explicitly relied on recreating the denigrating conditions of African people and thus at the very least should have been subject to consultation with the very same African people whose personal and Ancestral image was being commercially and spiritually exploited.
Attempting to classify this as art was an attempt to escape recognition of Exhibit B as a potentially new strand of Zoology. In Truth it proposed to invent a new method of 'reverse anthropology' where the output of participant observation is replaced with the ethnographic experiences of observers based solely on their reflections about the gaze of participating ‘objects’.
However despite all this, I still struggled to write on this topic. I didn't want to over intellectualise what in all reality is a matter that should be very simple to understand. As a Pan Africanist who passionately supports and enjoys the right to freedom of expression I loathe being involved in actions that would deny others the same – especially if there were a genuine likelihood of an educational outcome. Yet any such freedom must be balanced against any perceived right to offend, to denigrate, to subject any group of people to inhumane treatment.
Indeed article 10 of the European Convention of human Rights also reads – “The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others…”
For example, many have not been impressed with most of the Turner Prize nominated entries, myself included. Yet I accept most of them as valid expressions of art.
Also consider several years ago I attended a national museum with a live actress performing the role of Mary Seacole. There was absolutely no physical resemblance or similarity in their manner of speech however this was not at all offensive to the memory of our Ancestor despite the artistic license deployed when casting.
Defenders of Exhibit B would have you sidetracked into thinking this is a matter of attempting to ban art and thus ignore the original complaint that led to wholly legitimate expressions of protest (please remember that there was no physical violence bar a few people tugging at a fence, nor was there any arrests despite provocation by police with dogs).
This is not a question of human rights or censorship. Bailey’s right of expression has not been ‘suppressed, banned, silenced [and] denied a platform’ as he alludes to in his melodramatic martyr to the arts rhetoric. Exhibit B has been paraded across the world and given platforms that few African artists of equal and greater ability would have access to. No doubt his future productions will continue to be afforded that luxury.
Yet it is important to recognise that most of these opportunities he has occur because of both racism and sexism. It is his ability to convince others to collude in his repackaging of images and tales of African oppression as anti-racist art that makes the art cabal unable to disengage in the ideologically hideous group think that led to them releasing a joint statement condemning the protesting of an installation some felt was racist.
Take a moment to think about that.
It’s like a man filming himself touching a woman’s rear without her permission and then denying he’s sexist.
If we want to discuss whose socio-political voice is gagged, whose expression is appropriated, whose feelings are trampled over in the racist societies that Bailey cherishes and so loves to exhibit his installations then it certainly is not the European male.
As he writes “I am a white South African who spent my first 27 years living under a detestable regime of racism – albeit on the side of privilege.”
He is right, it is this privilege that he still possesses that fuels his willingness to dismiss the concerns of those whose Ancestral memory he tramples, his privilege that excuses his failure to abort ‘projects’ that evoke pain for those linked to the tales he reimagines.
I am not a violent person but this extremist level of blatant disrespect of the concerns of others, the trolling of Sista Sara Myers with phrases like “cultural Stalinist & pro-censorship campaigner” and the demonisation of protesters as stupid ‘mobs’ radicalises me. It also exposes the hypocrisy of Exhibit B supporters who would never dare sanction a live public exhibition depicting a comical side to the Prophet Muhammad PBUH.
Its public knowledge that I've had strong feelings on the topic, I publicly supported Sista Sara Myers’ peaceful and dignified #BoycottHumanZoo Campaign, I’ve published an article on the topic, signed the petition, spoke about it on the radio, challenged related racist comments, donated to the fund raiser, and even attended the protest and ‘debate’.
Yet despite all this, I still did not want to increase the published word count on the topic. I didn’t want to repeat words that have already been said or make Exhibit B out to be something more important than it should ever be. There are already too many articles on this topic out there.
Fortunately fate conspired to make the choice for us.
When a handful of people running a public funded arts institution feel confident enough to ignore the concerns of over twenty thousand people who have made their objection public, the issue is no longer about censorship or freedom of expression, it’s about racism and power.
Why racism? Well just as I as a man cannot tell a woman with any authority that when she feels oppressed because of her gender what she feels is not sexism, a member of an oppressive group cannot tell the oppressed with any authority that they are not experiencing racism when subjected to ethnicity based discrimination.
The Macpherson Report was quite useful in establishing guidelines on this that defined a racist incident as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.”
Surely the impression given to 23,000 people based on their interpretation of reams of press releases, articles, videos and commentary counts as ‘other person’?
The tired response that without witnessing abuse we cannot be sure something is actually abusive, whilst holding a modicum of merit is as silly as suggesting that we need to experience prison to know that it’s punitive.
Well no actually, I can read a prison memoir. I can even use my intelligence (and imagination) to make a logical assumption of what deprivation of liberty feels like based on the presence of indicators from past experiences that enable us to extrapolate the conditions.
In short, I don’t need to wait until someone uses the n word to conclude they are racist. Likewise the absence of racist language use does not indicate a non-racist.
Surely in this instance the situation becomes valid for submission to the western world’s ultimate morality test – What would Mandela say? What would Martin Luther King say?
In many ways Bailey alongside the cabal at the Barbican and The Vaults acted in accordance with the same ideological premise as did the minority ethnic regime in South Africa during the apartheid era. From BBC Newsnight to Channel 5’s Wrights Stuff, the aggressive and wholly biased manner in which they worked with the media to defend their ‘right’ to offend instead of their care of duty to all was reminiscent of the manner in which pro-segregation/anti-immigration American society used to behave. The strategic ‘divide and conquer’ strategy of using paid actors in ‘blackface’ mode deployed in an attempt to diminish and undermine the moral legitimacy of genuine concerns of minority voices was particularly distasteful.
If our Ancestor Nelson Mandela was still physically with us he may not have labelled Exhibit B as racist but simultaneously I have no doubt he would have indicated that this prostitution of African flesh and history was a deeply disrespectful way to depict our story during Maafa.
You see one of the first acts, then president Nelson Mandela did In 1994 was to request the remains of Sara Baartman be brought home so that she could be laid to rest. The process took eight years. For over 160 years preceeding that event, her brain and genitals were displayed in bottles at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris following her tragic life as a human ‘exhibit’ for European enlightenment.
Exhibit B was not and is not art.
Neither was it’s 2012 predecessor ‘Exhibit A’ which when launched featured promotional text reading; “This exhibition of live Africans provides an opportunity for you to gaze at a variety of people from different parts of the continent-to have a good, hard look at ‘difference’- and maybe to reach some kind of understanding,”.
Please read that again.
“An opportunity for you to gaze at a variety of people from different parts of the continent-to have a good, hard look at difference”
Can the Barbican really claim it did not recognise how deeply offensive this installation was prior to any protest? It is also worth noting that when Exhibit B was staged at the National Arts Festival in 2012, it was opposed by many South African who also challenged Bailey’s penchant for misappropriating African suffering for personal gain. What was the Barbicans justification for not engaging with Africans in Britain to at least ascertain their views through consultation?
There has also been much revisionary talk by supporters of Exhibit B claiming it was a piece of anti-racist work and that the primary objective was to educate by eliciting guilt from audiences, that the denigration and titillation was simply keeping it real. Was this an exhibition explicitly designed for Europeans? It would seem so considering there was no major marketing taken out in any of the media outlets used by African communities in the UK. What, if any attempt was made to attract a diverse audience?
If this was about the ‘exhibit’ returning the gaze to the descendants of the oppressors then why would an African spectator feel uncomfortable or guilty over the presence of the performer’s bodies? Would not the natural response to oh so familiar themes of objectification be pain, resentment and perhaps in some - anger?
The Guardian newspaper has been both praised by Exhibit B supporters for its gushing reviews and attacked by them for publishing an article depicting how performer Berthe Njole revealed when “a bunch of guys came in. They were laughing and making comments about my boobs and my body. They didn’t realise I was a human being. They thought I was a statue. Later, they returned and each one apologised to me in turn.”
Exhibit B (and A) was not art. It was not theatre (although we who protested injected drama), it wasn’t music (unless you call the installation of singing decapitated, apparently 'blacked up' heads a respectful tribute to our Ancestors), it was not even an exhibition (if this had been done with wax figurines like Madame Tussauds I would not have objected).
Exhibit B (and A) was a live installations of muted, African flesh curated like objects for the ‘enlightenment’ of a paying audience.
So yes, whilst it could be legitimately claimed that this was not a classical rendition of a human zoo, there was no explicit animal in natural habitat direction, ethnographically with its human ‘animal’ in a racist habitat perspective it became a modern update of the immoral concept in execution.
When Bailey admits that he is fascinated by human zoos and how “Once you objectify people, you can do the most terrible things to them.” He is being honest. That is why he instructs the performers not to look at the spectators with any anger or resentment, instead he tells them “they must work with compassion.”
And yet, if this was supposed to be a historical reenactment for educational purposes is it likely that all the original African people being objectified would have held no malice, no resentment and no disgust at the actions of their captors, oppressors and audience?
I would suggest there is no need to guess the answer, we need only read the autobiographies of Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Jacobs, Solomon Northup and Mary Prince.
I’ve read most of these but I doubt Bailey who more or less admits to plagiarising African spiritual beliefs for his personal benefit has. We could even skip autobiographies and instead study the works of Franz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Walter Rodney, Ousmane Sembene, and Amilcar Cabral. These are Africans with direct expeience of trans-Atlantic and/or colonial enslavement.
None of these Africans were silent. None were beyond feeling the emotions of anger and resentment.
The continued perpetuation of this ‘noble savage’ stereotype is another one of the reasons why I and so many others opposed Exhibit B.
Supporters claim that this deliberate objectification of semi naked African bodies was necessary to understand and explore western desires for “ethnological enlightenment”.
Apparently it was ‘art’ about racism and thus anti-racist.
This position is as ludicrous as suggesting a live installation of muted, semi naked children curated like objects for the gaze of a paying audience to expose the horrors of peadophilia is somehow anti-child abuse art. It’s not, it simply a recreation of the original crime in a controlled and scripted environment.
There is a huge difference between a film depicting the life of someone like Joseph Merrick (1862-90) who had a disfiguring tumour and a live installation in which a performer with a similar condition is treated like a social oddity in order to deliberately expose them to the gaze of a paying audience.
Please don’t be sidetracked by the comments of the few African participants who in effect have been ‘paid’ to defend Exhibit B. In our history we have always had those happy to subjugate their brothers and sisters for the benefit of Europeans during Maafa. Some do it ignorantly whilst others are sadly more willing.
By virtue of our brothers and sisters accepting money to collaborate with Exhibit B and potential future Bailey/Barbican related projects they have neutered their own claim of possessing moral integrity/neutrality.
We would also be wrong to imply everyone who agreed to participate did so aware of the full ramifications of what they were agreeing to. Some clearly made a mistake, some disagreed whilst others were naïve and ignorant of the history they were re-living.
Just as Joseph Merrick is said to have made a choice to participate in his own denigration out of desperation to escape life in a work house, we now live in a world where we are promised instant fame via millions of monetised youtube hits if we make the choice to forgo our responsibility to act with dignity and consciously abdicate moral agency for cash.
Tragically, programs like X Factor and Big Brother have contributed greatly to a culture where it is mediocrity and outlandish behavior instead of artistic talent which is actually celebrated.
It was obvious to many that Exhibit B was almost a modern day freak show. Sadly the Barbican in deciding to facilitate this installation chose to subscribe to this abhorrent trend of cheapening the reputation of the arts.
Bailey with an African ‘Exhibit’ (Photo: Sofie Knijff)
In the recent verbal brawl hosted by Nitro at the Stratford Theatre Royal, Barbican Director of Arts, Louise Jeffries made many arrogant claims defending her decision to commission Exhibit B. Interestingly enough, despite the advent of audio-visual communications software (skype, mobile phones, video conferencing, etc) Bailey was nowhere in sight to represent his installation.
In many ways Jeffries could be commended for facing her own (and Bailey’s) critics, however most of her own arguments, if subjected to sufficient scrutiny would have been exposed as at the best, naïve, at worst facetious.
1) Her first argument was that there were many ‘black’ communities. The implication being that in showing Exhibit B she was representing a silent majority whilst the body that was vocally objecting to Exhibit B were not representative of popular opinion. Perversely, Lemn Sissay, one of Jeffries’ ardent on stage supporters also made remarks stating that Bailey (who is known for frequently using the n word in public) knew his subject matter because he was an African and that anyone who had not travelled to South Africa would not understand.
2) A frequently repeated and to be frankly, insulting premise that Jeffries and her supporters also put forward was that we did not understand art. That somehow, in calling for the exhibition to be withdrawn we were cultural philistines. Barbaric opponents to the transmission of knowledge that could enlighten others.
3) Next there were the patronising statements suggesting we were too stupid to understand the difference between a piece of racist art and an art piece challenging racism. Exhibit B supposedly falls into the anti-racist category.
4) Finally, relying on statistical analysis to defend her decision, Jefferies also implied that the estimated 25,000 people who had previously seen Exhibit B (at over 14 previous events) somehow countered the views of the then 22,000 petition signers who had not. Her assertion was that this and the 150 paid performers who collaborated with Exhibit B somehow provided evidence vindicating her and her institution from accusations of collaborating with the promotion of racist ideology. It’s an interesting suggestion. The notion that we can decide questions of morality via opinion polls - let the market decide so to speak. She offered no ethnicity breakdown of the audiences and ‘exhibits’.
Despite the valiant efforts of Olu Alake to chair the heated discussion with objectivity, Bailey and the Barbican came off as cultural pimps. Whilst Sara Myers and her team focused on concerns of Ancestral denigration and the abject lack of access to institutional art venues by young and emerging African British talent, Jeffries was flanked by ‘enlightened blacks’ too angry to seriously engage with the deeper issue of misrepresentation, oppression and disrespect and instead myopically focused on some pernicious argument about agency, lack of personal knowledge of self, censorship and art.
And it is this misdirected gaze in the wrong direction that is at the very crux of this matter. The recreation and elevation of the continuing oppressive gaze as opposed to that of the oppressed. If this installation was art it would have best been described as unoriginal, predictably shocking, tabloidesque in vision and execution. A typically Daily Mail / LBC approach to a Guardian or Radio 4 topic. A tacky empty calabash making noise whilst masquerading as a powerful elegant Djembe producing beautiful rhythmic music.
Just as with the men who profit from the sexual exploitation of women in the porn industry, all claims that the ‘performances’ empowers women in the sex workers industry masks the very real and ugly fact that as with Bailey the target client base is never the subject of the objectification - but instead the paying voyeurs.
Some claim that recreating the act of intimacy in a staged manner is not prostitution, they argue that those engaged are actors with free will. Yet any cultural worker who solicits money for exploiting a performance always walks a fine line between prostituting themselves and the subject of their craft. In historically based genres such as museum exhibitions or cinematic films, the real challenge is often to deliver a piece with both authenticity and accuracy whilst injecting artistic creativity.
If we consider two recent interpretations of African enslavement on the big screen, the latter was director Steve McQueens beautifully sensitive rendition in 12 Years a Slave. Yes there were scenes of gratuitous violence, but never were the recipients of the abuse objectified, nor the perpetrators glorified for the entertainment of the audience. Prior to this release there was also Quentin Tarantino’s obnoxious reinvention of the 'blaxploitation' flick as a disrespectful slavery themed Western. With its 'Mandingo' fights and virtually mute African cast (including the alleged female lead) here was a depiction that added nothing to the debate apart from offensive titillation on a serious subject. With its severed 'singing' heads, Bailey's Exhibit B offers more of the same. It’s his calling card.
We don’t even need to debate the concerns of our African friends and colleagues who saw Exhibit B in Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2012. They described it as “deeply disturbing”, “bordering on insults” and a “gleeful celebration of colonial perspective on African suffering, pain and agony.” - Sandile Memela
It is safe to assume similar views existed in the 14 theaters, festivals and arts organizations (South Africa, Scotland, France, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Austria, Holland, Poland and England) where African people as a minority community did not always have the critical mass (and media influence) needed to generate the same level of press as we could in the UK.
In an interview for the Guardian Brett pleads that ‘It has not been my intention to alienate people with this work... or] Explicitly to offend’
Do you still need more evidence of his past ‘controversial-for-publicity-sake’ form?
Ok, then how about when in 2003, Bailey was embroiled in much controversy after he arranged for a chicken to be slaughtered live on stage in a ‘sacrificial offering’ during his ‘play’ - iMumbo Jumbo. This particular piece of Bailey’s ‘art’ was described as following the quest of Chief Nicholas Gcaleka as he travels to Britain in 1996 in a bid to retrieve the skull of his ancestral king Hintsa, killed by British troops in 1836.
Brett seems to believe that in plundering and subverting the stories of our Ancestors who endured savage oppression he had chosen a safe option where he can expect little resistance to how he represents them. It’s like if by plagiarising the annals of African History he seems to feel his ‘white’ privilege will always protect him.
He is wrong.
So I’m proud my children won’t have to tell their children that we did nothing as this was going on. The media may pretend that Exhibit B was censored by a terrifying ‘mob’ but the Truth is somewhat different. If the Occupy movement, stop the war movement, student fee protesters and countless others are legitimate agents of dissent, then so were we.
I also love the fact that we now have a definitive list of all those that chose to turn against us when we needed their support. There will be more bigger and important conflicts coming and it’s good to know those who our young people today would refer to as Uncle Ruckus.
I know many people that were happy to simply boycott Exhibit B as was their right. But when I turned up at the protest on the opening night I had one sole mission.
To support the protest and then grit my teeth and observe it (I had a ticket), and If I found that my suspicions were correct once inside then I would have stopped it.
If however I found out that I was wrong then I would have eaten humble pie and if necessary written an article explaining my position. But this is all now a moot point because due to the Barbican’s decision to close it (which I admit to have had contributed to that outcome) I fortunately did not have to endure the pain of what I would have seen.
Sara and her brilliant campaign team had tried reasoning, had attended meetings, had elicited the support of politicians and had participated in petitions, peaceful protests and lively debates.
But with the same spirit of Mandela when he realised it was time to create Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the nation), I knew I had to help stop this travesty using any way possible. It was great being amongst those with exactly the same vision.
Bailey’s use of “pantomime caricatures” in past plays had already led to reviewers accusing him of portraying Africans people as “savage morons”. Back then Bailey loved the attention proudly claiming his work ‘Ipi Zombi’ was “boycotted by conscientised blacks all over the world.”.
One reviewer even labelled the entire production as a “saga told by real life blacks to real life whites who sit with gaping mouths and googoo eyed at performers in trance-like states moving and talking like doped-up freaks.”
I’m proud Exhibit B will no longer be shown in London.
Not on my watch.
Some of the African Supporters & Participants of Exhibit B
Agnes Yameogo Nabyoure
Berthe Tanwo Njole aka D-WA
Chantal Loial Eric Abrogoua
Christoph ‘Vevangwa’ Muondjo
Collivan Nsorockebe Nso
Jean-Philippe Mpeng-Backot aka ‘SOON’
Jelle Samminadin Toussaint
Josef ‘Patrick’ van der Westhuizen
Lazara Rosell Albear
Lesley Melvin Du Pont
Mathilda ‘Ruby’ Joseph
Rodin Mutunani aka ‘Mr. Zero’
Samkele Yolada Stamper
Stephen Mwiya Simonde
Thomas Lwicell Lancien
External LinksBrett Bailey must choose – respect Africa or be damned!Hens number was up, says iMumbo Jumbo directorYes, Exhibit B is challenging – but I never sought to alienate or offendSarah Baartman, at rest at lastRacist SA exhibit closed in London
Cancellation letter from event host, The Vault
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Legitimate expression of anti-racist art or an offensive installation of anti-African objectification? Why?
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