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Performers in London's 'Racist' Human Zoo Exhibit Are Angry It's Been Shut Down

Activists demanding black people tell their own stories aren't letting black people tell their own stories.

by JS Rafaeli
26 September 2014, 11:01am

A scene from "Exhibit B" (via)

Priscilla Adade-Helledy is a young black woman living in London. She graduated from LAMDA two years ago and now deals with the myriad trials faced by every young actress: people asking you to work for free, less work thanks to the arts funding cuts and having to decide whether it's really worth paying £250 for head shots when your flatmate actually has a pretty decent camera.

Another problem Priscilla confronts is the lack of good roles for black actors - and black actresses in particular - in British film, theatre and TV.  So, a few months ago, she was excited to get a call about a gallery-based installation show at the Barbican that explored the legacy of European colonialism and was specifically looking for performers of colour. She got the part, undertook the three-day rehearsal process and prepared for the opening night.

But the show never opened.

Protesters outside the opening night of "Exhibit B" (Photo courtesy of Zita Holbourne)

Just as the performance was beginning on Tuesday night, a crowd of around 150 anti-racism protesters gathered outside the entrance to The Vaults in Waterloo. They beat drums, shouted slogans and did all the usual stuff protesters do. Then the atmosphere changed; the protesters reportedly forced their way through the security barriers, blockading the performers in and the audience out. The Barbican representatives freaked out and promptly cancelled the entire week of performances, saying they "could not guarantee the safety of performers, audiences and staff". Priscilla and her fellow performers were confused, scared and distressed; the protesters were jubilant; and the section of keyboard crusaders who usually concern themselves with this sort of thing totally lost their shit.

This storm had been brewing for a while. From the moment the piece, "Exhibit B", had been announced, a section of the black activist community had denounced it as a racist work of colonial exploitation. A blogger named Sara Myers started a change.org petition calling on the Barbican to withdraw the piece, stating that "we, as black African people, do not need to be reminded or re-brainwashed into thinking we are less than. To camouflage this assault behind the mask of a 'respectable' institution such as the Barbican is tantamount to mental terrorism." To date, this petition has gathered just under 23,000 signatures.

So where does the outrage stem from? What does a piece of Barbican-curated performance art have to do to become an act of "mental terrorism"?

The problem people had is that "Exhibit B" takes some of its aesthetic cues from the 19th Century "Human Zoos", in which African natives were paraded around Europe and the US in ethnographic displays, not unlike those weird vignettes at the Natural History Museum. Obviously, the entire concept of this type of "show" is totally grotesque, raising massive issues around visions of "the other" and the colonial gaze.

And it is exactly those issues that the artist, Brett Bailey, claims he's attempting to address in the piece. Bailey is a white South African who grew up under Apartheid and has gone on an obvious personal journey exploring conflicting narratives of race, privilege and history. He is described by the South African critic Ashraf Jamal as "...our greatest theatre director, hauntologist, mesmeriser".

When we met a day after the furore of opening night Bailey explained that "Exhibit B" consists of 13 tableaux-vivants, each featuring one or two performers standing absolutely still, whose only instructions are to never break eye contact with the audience. The "colonial gaze" is returned and subverted. The tableaus themselves reflect various horrors perpetrated in the name of racial differentiation, both colonial and contemporary. For instance, two of the "modern" stages deal with immigration and asylum, and are titled "Found Objects". Referring to a living, breathing person in front of you as "object" is intentionally jarring, and each tableau is accompanied by an explanation of its historical context and a list of its components. Crucially, the last item on each list is "spectators". The audience are explicitly framed within the work, forcing them to confront their own complicity.

A scene from "Exhibit B" (via)

While Bailey insists that the core question of "Exhibit B" is "how do you bring dignity to this person from whom dignity has been stripped", much has been made of whether he, as a white man, has the right to address these questions. Writing in the Guardian, Kehinde Andrews accuses the show of "fawning over the naked and prostrate black body" (two of the performers are topless) and of reproducing "the idea that black people are passive agents to be used as conduits for white people to speak to each other".

And here lies the real problem in most of the discussions of this piece. Thus far, "Exhibit B" has been shown in 12 cities, meaning around 170 black performers have made a conscious, informed decision to participate in the work. For all the vitriol directed against Brett Bailey by the boycott campaign as an "insidious white liberal", he isn't really the point of interest in this discussion. The point of interest is Priscilla.

Over an extensive interview, Priscilla told me she's furious that "Exhibit B" has been shut down, and was emphatic that participating in the piece was a profoundly moving, empowering experience for her. "I felt real investment in this work, and ownership over my role," she said. "Sometimes you come across a piece and just go, 'That's it! That's exactly what I want to say.' We all really saw this as a journey, as a way of changing things. But also, for me, I learned a lot about my own identity - like, I was born in Brussels and I never even knew the last Human Zoo was in Brussels, in 1958."

I asked her about her reaction to finding out the piece had been shut down. "The first thing was I tried to find words, but I came out in tears. In all my experiences of racism I've never actually had someone say to me, 'You can't do your art.' We were being totally unvoiced by the people who said they were anti-racists. It was really... umm... depressing."

Protesters outside the opening night of "Exhibit B" (Photo courtesy of Zita Holbourne)

Later, I did telephone interviews with Sara Myers - who started the online petition against the piece - and Zita Holbourne, co-Chair of Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts, one of the key organisations backing the boycott. I told them about the unedifying situation of a young black woman saying she felt denied a voice by other, older black women, and asked them what they would say to Priscilla. Sara Myer's response was telling: "Nothing."

"A young black woman has just told you she feels you've denied her voice, and your response is really 'Nothing'?'.

"Well, I'd say now she knows how our ancestors felt."

"But she's saying she feels you denied her voice."

"I didn't deny anyone's voice. I didn't shut the show down. The Barbican did that - the Barbican silenced her, not Sara Myers. We just banged drums and protested."

Confusingly, before she'd told me this, Myers had announced her campaign's victory on Facebook with the line: "We did it. And our ancestors are proud."

Many of the other performers echo Priscilla's sentiments. Anne Mora stated, "I invited a friend - a black African and a scholar in African studies - to the show. I knew he could deconstruct this piece every which way, and I wanted his opinion. Afterwards, he said, 'Everything I am trying to do in my work was presented in this exhibition.' I have never felt prouder."

A scene from "Exhibit B" (via)

So what happens now that the show has been cancelled? One thing's for sure: 14 actors won't get to perform a piece they believed in at the Barbican.

But the rest of us will only ever be able to wonder what all the fuss was about. The first question I asked both Sara Myers and Zita Holbourne was which performance of "Exhibit B" they had seen to make them so passionate about it. They both replied that they had never actually seen the piece and had based their judgements on pictures and videos. This isn't the politics of representation, it's the politics of representation of representation.

Maybe they're right? Maybe "Exhibit B" is an awful, racist horror. The problem now is none of us will ever know, because now we'll never get to see it.

And there's the rub. While everyone involved in the boycott absolutely insists that they weren't censoring Brett Bailey or his art, denying freedom of expression is an act of double violence. You do violence to those who want to speak, but also to those who want to hear. You may have loved to see this piece and decided for yourself whether or not it was worthwhile. But now you can't because some people decided you weren't grown up enough to make up your own mind. And that sucks.

At the time of writing, the No. 2,678 bestseller on amazon.co.uk is Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. This is massively irritating as it's a good 6,000 places above my own book, but it is an important historical document that should be read. Unpleasant, yes, but very important. 

All too often fundamental principles express themselves as clichés. But when it comes to freedom of expression - both to see and to hear - one must ultimately echo Evelyn Beatrice Hall's summation of the French philosopher Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

More stories about race and racism:

Should Being a Racist Dick on the Internet Be Illegal?

You Don't Have to Be White to Be a Racist

Why Are the FBI Still Chasing Black Panther Assata Shakur?