Almost a year ago, there was big scandal in London about ‘Exhibit B’. This was a human zoo that should have been installed at the Barbican, Europe’s largest multi-arts centre. Conceived by a white South African artist, Brett Bailey, this human zoo was a throwback to 19th- and early 20th-century exhibitions of black bodies put on display in Europe and America for the entertainment of white people.
Bailey’s ‘Exhibit B’ featured black actors in cages. There was a woman chained to a bed. This primal scene was based on the rapacious life of a French colonial officer who kept black women as sex slaves, literally imprisoning them in his bed. I suppose he knew that if they had a choice, they wouldn’t be there.
Another scene featured a black man sitting in a cage. Attached was a bilingual sign in English and Afrikaans, ‘The blacks have been fed.’ That’s right. You know the usual sign in non-human zoos, ‘Don’t feed the animals’! The message was clear.
White people have been fixated on the bodies of black people for many centuries. The current obsession with Serena Williams is typical. Unwilling to concede that Serena is actually a beautiful woman, lunatic racists insist that she’s really a man. Supposedly repelled by her magnificent structure, they are, nevertheless, magnetised by her alluring form. And not just on the tennis court.
It is this fascination with the ‘other’ that drives racist exhibitions like the human zoo. Though Brett Bailey claimed that he was actually criticising the historical zoos, hardly anybody believed him. It wasn’t just black people who denounced the ‘show’. People of all races objected to the way in which racism was masquerading as art. Vigorous protest erupted and the London exhibition was shut down.
Believe it or not, there’s a real-life human zoo right here in Kingston. It’s definitely not a work of art. And the exhibits in this human zoo are not victims of a racist artist projecting stereotypes. These humans have deliberately imprisoned themselves in the zoo. To be honest, I haven’t actually seen anybody in the zoo. But I’ve viewed the cage. And what a sight it is!
I was recently driving through Hope Pastures and, luckily, I was not stopped by the police for a spot check. But I had to stop, almost on the spot, when I saw the spectacular human zoo. From the fence to the house, there’s a solid web of grillwork covering the entire yard, it seems. The Jamaica Observer published pictures:
I wondered who would live like that so I went to have a chat with one of the neighbours. She said she didn’t know the occupants of the house but she’d heard that there had been a break-in. So the grilling of the yard seems to be an extreme response to crime. All the same, the psychology of the inmates is troubling. To feel so vulnerable that you would imprison yourself in this way!
Neighbours watched in dismay as the invasive prison architecture took shape. Then the citizens’ association contacted the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation (KSAC) asking them to visit the site. Naturally, the association wanted to know if grilling the yard was a violation of building regulations. Up to the time of my conversation with that neighbour, the KSAC had not inspected the premises.
CASTLE OR EYESORE?
Proverbial wisdom asserts that one’s home is one’s castle. Many Jamaicans aspire to own a castle – Comrades, Labourites and sceptics. Returning residents, especially from the UK, are notorious for building homes that look like a wannabe Buckingham Palace. After putting up with racism and bad weather for decades, they think they deserve a castle.
Even if they haven’t lived ‘a farin’ and earned hard currency, many ambitious Jamaicans feel entitled to a castle. Big ego, bigger house! But the whole point of the proverb is not to encourage ‘castledom’. It’s the principle of privacy and security that is to be protected, no matter how small one’s house is.
Of course, one person’s castle can become another’s eyesore. So how do we balance the right to privacy versus respect for the vision of one’s neighbours? The human zoo in Hope Pastures is a classic test case. Is the occupants’ need for security more compelling than the neighbours’ desire for ‘normal’ grillwork? And will the KSAC insist that the grills be removed from the yard? We’ll just have to wait and see.
It strikes me that, eyesore aside, the grilled yard poses a serious security risk. And I don’t mean just the security of the occupants of the house who could get trapped in the yard in an emergency. Enterprising criminals might see the grilled yard as an Olympic challenge: “Dem tink dem whole heap a grille a go stop we? Don’t test!”
Then I suspect that the house is soon going to become a major tourist attraction, drawing spectators from far and wide. This must be the only house in Jamaica, if not in the entire Western world, that is fortified in this way. Residents of Hope Pastures are going to have a hell of a time policing traffic to the human zoo. Perhaps they should ask Kenny Benjamin for help. He’s an expert on animal zoos. Not to mention security.