Edinburgh - It takes a lot to shock the worldly art lovers that congregate in Edinburgh, Scotland, for the annual arts festivals that take place here.
It also takes a lot to get noticed here; where a multitude of parallel festivals (of art, literature, the fringe, music) offer entertainment and intellectual stimulation in every single shape and form.
Of all the South African works at this festival as a result of the SA-UK Seasons, a cultural accord engineered to foster closer relations between the countries, what was expected to create controversy was the bare-breasted maidens in the Zulu troupe that were part of the Military Tattoo.
However, the SA artistic company with the tongue-in-cheek name Third World Bunfight, were hailed by the local press as presenting the most controversial work. Created by its artistic director, Brett Bailey, Exhibit B, which has been installed in a university library, is a macabre production that catalogues some of the worst crimes committed by the West upon Africans from colonial times up until the present.
Each atrocity is presented like a museum display, with signs detailing when and where each took place. At the centre is a live, yet inert performer, playing the victim. The power of these installations is their penetrative stares, which force the viewers to avert their gaze, confront their shame, rooted in their desire to study them despite their sense of revulsion. This production overtly echoes and plays off the live-human exhibitions in the 1900s when Africans, such as Saartjie Baartman (who is represented here too) were viewed as curiosities for the pleasure of the European gaze.Those “exhibitions” were pure theatre too, amplifying the otherness or supposed savagery of the subjects.
Bailey has cleverly upturned this tradition by presenting Europeans with their own “otherness” – their historical capability for extreme violence and acts of gross human abuses. The acts presented in this chilling travelling show of horrors include a semi-naked slave chained to a bed, a woman who we are told has been cleaning out the skulls of her fellow Africans so that they can be shipped to Europe, a man who has been silenced by a metal contraption that fits over his mouth, and singing decapitated heads.
All the incidents are historically accurate, but it is not the cold hard facts that disturb; the re-enactment with live models playing the victims gives it the edge. Some spectators have left the show in tears. In expectation of this Bailey has set up a room where spectators can write about their impressions, emotions.
Bailey may be working with historical facts about gross human violations that have never been aired nor been formally accounted for, to which this show directs our attention; however, in a seemingly politically-correct country as the UK, he ultimately is presenting a space for visitors to exorcise shame and to reaffirm their separation from the bigoted attitudes of the past – though the show includes incidents in the present where African immigrants have died while being repatriated to their countries of origin.
Different iterations of this production have played in South Africa, notably at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2012, where it raised questions about presenting Africans as victims and was met with less surprise than here. Aware that productions can only really be sustained in the long run with European tours, Bailey tailor-made the show for those audiences – it has toured in France.
On this occasion it is part of the SA-UK Seasons.
William Kentridge’s Ubu and the Truth Commission, and a new collaborative dance musical called Inala that features Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Royal Ballet company is also on the International programme. The work of Mary Sibande and Kay Hassan are part of a large art exhibition called Where do I End and You Begin?
Race and Silent Voice, local productions which star some of our best thespians (such as Presley Chweneyagae) are showing on the Fringe. Yet it is Exhibit B that has been the talk of the town, proving that theatre is best appreciated when it holds up a mirror to society.