Excuse the strained pun in the title, but I was attempting to go for something more original than the plethora of banal headlines which use words like ‘racist’ (quotation marks included) and ‘censorship’ to describe the cancellation of Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B at the Barbican in London following protests and a 23,000 strong petition against it.
The exhibit plays on the idea of the nineteenth century ‘human zoo’, in which black Africans were literally displayed in zoos for whites to stare at and revile. It uses local black actors in whichever city the exhibition is staged to recreate twelve common scenarios from colonialism that Bailey has researched, such as a woman chained to a bed waiting to be raped. When I first heard about this coming to London, it didn’t sit well. Whilst arguably this is the point of the exhibit, I knew it wasn’t just because it was ‘edgy’ art. Now the exhibition has been cancelled and there are accusations of censorship from the art world and the general public; Bailey thinks it shows ‘a really worrying conservatism’. I want to clarify a couple of myths here about what the anti-exhibit movement has really been about, because I for one want to actually participate in a dialogue and move on from statements that ‘it is perfectly obvious that the Barbican would never put on a racist event’ and that the performers have been ‘silenced’.
Myth 1: the campaign against Exhibit B is anti-free speech, pro-censorship
The campaign against the exhibit was not an anti-free speech, or pro-censorship move. Minorities are often acutely aware of the effects of censorship, having suffered the worst of it. In 2006, a Bangladeshi-British photographer had a photo removed from an exhibition in Birmingham as it showed a semi-naked Muslim woman. It was removed by the gallery after one complaint. The artist, Syra Miah, fought against this fiercely, but the gallery justified their decision on the basis that ‘this complaint has come from our target audience’. Where was the outrage against censorship then? Or perhaps Exhibit B differs in that the complaints came from people who were not the target audience? The black community was not intended to be part of the limited 750 people buying £20 tickets. It is therefore not ‘perfectly obvious’ that the Barbican would not host a racist event.
The outrage speaks to the larger problem of the lack of representation that minorities have in the arts. The woman who created the online petition, Sara Meyers, was reportedly shocked when she realized that the board and senior management of the Barbican are ‘with one exception, all white’. It has been calculated that if minorities were to receive arts funding proportional to their size it would equate to £112 milion per year. At the moment it is a measly £4.8 million. This ‘mono-cultural bias’ in the arts as Index on Censorship has called it, is the real underlying issue, not censorship. As Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote said ‘nobody wanted this banned, but we wanted them to think again’.
Myth 2: the performers are all in favour of the exhibition, the campaign ‘silenced’ them
Whilst some protestors may have felt as though the performers were unthinking puppets, this argument is not one put forth by the majority of campaigners. Most of the campaigners do not believe that the black performers are representative of entire communities and therefore their defences of the exhibit are not somehow worth more than Bailey’s defense. In fact, the campaign is arguably strengthened by the doubts and concerns the performers themselves have about the work. They have asked ‘how do you know we are not entertaining people the same way the human zoos did?’, ‘how can you be sure that it’s not just white people curious about seeing black people?’ and ‘how is this different?’ These are all valid questions, and Bailey himself has said: ‘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’”’.
Frankly, the Barbican took the easy way out by cancelling the exhibit. Keeping it open would have undermined these accusations of censorship and actually forced a dialogue on the issues, rather than steering the media towards issues of free speech.
Given all of the heated issues at stake, the protests and outcry should therefore not be a surprise to Bailey, or anyone else. There are two final points to be made. The first is that these statements show that the exhibit touches on issues still very current in the subjugation of a minority. The second is that whilst art can go a long way to raising pressing issues in an emotive manner, surely some things don’t need to be shown so vividly, using live bodies? To repeat what other campaigners have compared it to, if a German wanted to show the misery of the Holocaust by piling up live Jews in a mock gas chamber it wouldn’t be allowed, would it?
For an extended and far more eloquent defense of the anti-Exhibit B campaign, read Akala’s piece on ‘The Human Zoo and the Masturbation of White Guilt’. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/akala/barbican-centre_b_5809508.html and http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/akala/human-zoo-exhibit-b_b_5889390.html?&ir=UK