Three ways to look at Exhibit B
Following the London cancellation of Brett Bailey’s art show Exhibit B, Bailey, Sandile Memela and Diane de Beer debate the issue.
Exhibit B was “made in love against the hate of racism”, says artist Brett Bailey. His statement, edited here, first appeared on artslink.co.za
Exhibit B, a performance piece that I have made and which has been staged at major festivals in several European cities, has been cancelled in London.
I stand for a global society that is rich in a plurality of voices. I stand against any action that calls for the censoring of creative work or the silencing of divergent views, except those where hatred is the intention.
The intention of Exhibit B was never hatred, fear or prejudice. It is about love, respect and outrage. Those who have caused Exhibit B to be shut down brand the work as racist. They have challenged my right, as a white South African, to speak about racism the way I do. They accuse me of exploiting my performers. They insist that my critique of human zoos and the objectifying, dehumanising colonial/racist gaze is nothing more than a recreation of those spectacles of humiliation and control. The vast majority of them have not attended the work.
Exhibit B has been lauded by audiences and critics for the powerful stance it takes against racism, the dehumanisation and objectification of black people, and the sanitisation of the brutalities of European colonialism.
Exhibit B is not primarily a work about colonial era violence. Its main focus is current racist and xenophobic policies in the EU, and how these have evolved from the state-sanctioned racism of the late 19th century. These policies do not exist in historical isolation. They have been shaped over centuries. The dehumanising stereotypes of otherness instilled in the consciousness of our ancestors have been transmitted subconsciously and insidiously through the ages. Exhibit B demands that we interrogate these representations.
I am accused of exploiting the performers of Exhibit B. The implication is that those who opt to perform in the piece lack agency. In the rehearsals, I emphasise that they need to find their own inner meaning in the work. The rehearsals include exercises in endurance, self-awareness and meditation. There is a lot of care, coaching and compassion.
I so wish those moments in which the security barriers outside the venue were breached last week had not occurred. This whole thing is much bigger than Exhibit B, bigger than the Barbican. I can well understand that the show had to close, unfortunately. Had somebody been injured, with tempers this frayed, who knows what could have happened.
I shudder to think that an artwork made in love against the hate of racism could spark a violent riot.
It has not been my intention to alienate people with this work. To challenge perceptions and histories, yes. Explicitly to offend, no. I hate that this whole episode is polarising people even more.
Do any of us really want to live in a society in which expression is suppressed, banned, silenced, denied a platform? My work has been shut down today. Whose will be closed down tomorrow?
Why would any self-respecting artist want to be part of this kind of show, asks writer, cultural commentator and public servant, Sandile Memela. (He writes this in his personal capacity.)
There is a lot of consternation in some quarters following the London cancellation of South African theatre entrepreneur Brett Bailey’s art show Exhibit B.
The event, which was being staged at the Barbican Theatre, purports to give insight into the dehumanisation and violent brutality of colonialism to Africans, and many of the show’s supporters are aggrieved that the work of this overrated and provocative white African artist has allegedly being censored for “telling it like it is”.
Those upset by the show – which was cancelled by the Barbican last week after a protest and which features black actors in chains – say it “provocatively displays the degrading imperialist behaviour of his (sic) ancestors who murdered, raped and dispossessed Africans of their land and mineral resources”. In fact, this imperialist political control and economic domination continues to this day.
I am not going to debate the concerns of African friends and colleagues who saw it at the National Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown in 2012.
They described it as “deeply disturbing”, “bordering on insulting” and a “gleeful celebration of colonial perspective on African suffering, pain and agony”.
What I know is that everyone has to be cautious about voicing their opinions lest they be accused of depriving this rich and celebrated artist his right to freedom of expression enshrined in our constitution.
Rather what I want to concern myself with is the human agency and choice, if any, of an African artist to be part of this show and others similar to it.
Why would a self-respecting African want to be part of this kind of show?
Perhaps what is important to recognise is that many so-called African artists who participate in “blackface” shows like Exhibit B are, largely, motivated by economic reasons rather than artistic merit or any cultural conviction.
They are so desperate for work they are willing to do anything, including stooping to the lowest levels, to claw their way into a decent life.
Presumably, serious consumers of politically conscious arts will be aware of Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled that correctly portrays how African artists are compromised. If not, check it out.
Throughout most of our history – especially in South Africa with producers like Bailey – African artists have been compromised to operate like askaris; that is, men, women and children who have joined the enemy ranks for survival and self-interest.
They have allowed themselves to be brainwashed to believe they can work from a colonial perspective to fight colonialism. It’s called “fighting the system from within”.
Of course, history has taught us this is a waste of time. You cannot overcome that which you have allowed to take over your mind to define how you are portrayed even if it is to put food on the table.
Now, we are told by these same African artists that collaboration with colonial perspectives and artistic products is a way to intervene in white supremacists works that project and portray Africans as inferior, submissive and meek in the face of colonialism.
But we have to challenge this Eurocentric view that African people were docile and had no choice but to be put in cages to be displayed to European voyeurs who paid plenty of money to see the “human zoo”.
For instance, in the free South Africa, where artistic production is still controlled and dominated by whites – especially in the film, television and visual arts sector – there are many so-called African artists who have been forced to assimilate and collaborate with the European perspective and view on African experiences and realities.
This includes what happens in the townships and rural African settings white people have not visited.
In fact, a new cultural context has been recreated where askaris are now redefined as those who have “made it”.
What is concealed is that they have been forced by economic circumstances to subject themselves to white or European mind control to portray the African experience in a negative light.
Rather than spend time and energy on the rightness or wrongness of Bailey’s Exhibit B, we have to begin to question the role of those so-called African artists who perpetuate colonial domination and thinking for self-interest and economic survival.
These men and women who are paraded as having freedom of choice and have the right to “tell the African story” are nothing but gate-keepers who help descendants of colonialists to continue to exercise mind control over how African experiences are understood and interpreted in the 21st century.
owhere is this trend more evident than in the television and film industry, among others, in South Africa where producers, script writers and directors are dominantly white people who are outsiders to the authentic black or African experience. Ironically, these are the same people who have the power to tell the African story.
Thus when militant black resistance to Exhibit B broke out in London with globalised Africans choosing to defend how the African experience is portrayed, the role of those who consider themselves African artists was brought into question.
Even though some so-called African artists have responded to the cancellation of Bailey’s show by asserting his artistic freedom of expression and their own right to collaborate with him, it is now clear that such artists who reflect a colonial mentality and uphold supremacist perspectives have come to a dead end.
They must explain themselves to Africa and her people. Otherwise artists who defend and protect colonialist and supremacist biases will always be viewed as “suspect”, as potential traitors who are willing to do anything to fill their empty stomachs at the expense of African integrity, dignity and self-respect.
There is nothing wrong with African artists collaborating with descendants of colonialists to tell the African story. But it is not asking for too much when the global African village demands that we pause to think and critically debate how we continue to allow African stories that promote and preserve a colonial perspective.
It begins with Africans being true to themselves, first, before they please their bosses.
Brett’s work helps make us more caring beings, says Diane de Beer, Independent Newspapers’ leading theatre and arts critic.
Brett Bailey is one of those artists who smuggles his ideas into your mind. He surreptitiously leads you into a conversation mostly with yourself, your perceptions of the world and how it behaves and then he questions the status quo – again in your head.
He makes you think, questions your feelings about different issues which might not even have been part of your reference and makes sure that it has a particular South African heartbeat, yet always with universal relevance.
Exhibit B, which I first saw in Grahamstown as Exhibit A in 2012, is one of those mind-blowing, heart-wrenching experiences – obviously, as the recent ruckus in London has shown, depending on how you view these issues.
My most recent viewing was in Edinburgh with an internationally as well as racially mixed group. From remarks made and tears shed by many of the viewers afterwards, it felt as if we had all been on an emotional expedition.
An artist in the way he approaches every production, Bailey starts the show as soon as you queue up to enter the exhibit. Once you’re invited inside, you’re led into a room with rows of chairs, handed a numbered card, and asked to wait to enter the exhibition when your number is called. This isn’t all that odd because many huge exhibitions touring the world have a similar modus operandi.
The difference is the fact that you’re asked not to say a word before you’re led into a space, which now starts playing with your head. There’s a looming sense of doom even before you start your viewing and your emotions are channelled to a very uncomfortable place.
In a world that has young and old Ebola victims lying in the walkways leading to hospital doors without any clothes on because of the unstoppable diarrhoea, or kidnap victims waiting to be beheaded, are we really going to prevent people from working with their own truth rather than take another’s words? That’s what usually gets us into trouble anyway, following a particular lead.
Bailey is having a discussion and his topics are ones that have long been ignored by the wider public. He decides to air them in a way that has people lining up because of the artistic integrity.
For me, Exhibit B was profoundly moving as we witness once again the deplorable behaviour of human beings – whether they are colonialists who thought they didn’t have to pay any heed to people they labelled as inferior, or contemporary countries battling to deal with refugees, exiles or asylum seekers while returning them “home” on planes without any regard for their life.
If we’re only allowed to hear and watch stories told from what some might deem as the “right” perspective, probably we will also have to behave and react to stories in a particular way.
Artists have always held a mirror to society. They implore us to look, make up our own minds and hopefully re-emerge as better and more caring human beings. Bailey is an artist who has always had that impact on me.
Exhibit B, described as a display of black people as “artefacts recreated from history museums”, is shocking to the core, but in a quiet way. It leads you through a hall of exhibits, with each particular individual scenario begging you to stand still and watch quite horrifically how the people enslaved are watching you.
How can you turn away? And when you leave the exhibit, you want humanity restored in every corner of the world. Why do we always in some way have to live at the cost of others?
All of these things scamper through my mind as, once again, Bailey has reminded me that I am one of the lucky ones, and with that in mind, I should be watching out for those who have been handed so much more of a struggle just navigating life.