Believe it or not, in this day and age, Europe’s largest multi-arts centre, The Barbican, planned to stage last week a human zoo, featuring black bodies caught in degrading poses! The installation is the perverse work of a white South African, Brett Bailey.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, black bodies were put in cages and exhibited in human zoos in Europe and America purely for the pleasure of beastly white people. One of the most famous of these exhibits was the South African, Sarah Bartman, known as the Hottentot Venus.
Hottentot, now a derogatory term for the Khoi people, was joined with Venus, the Roman goddess of love, to show just how ridiculous it was to think of this black woman’s body as beautiful. Funnily enough, her substantial buttocks and breasts were being mocked at a time when white women were pumping up their bumper with nuff padding. Was it plain old envy that made Sarah Bartman so fascinating?
The first of the five images from the show on the Barbican’s website features a man trapped in a metal headpiece that covers his chin and mouth, all the way up to his nostrils. The brace has metal strips that circle his neck and then go up the side of his face, presumably meeting above his head.
This brace is one of the brutal instruments of torture used to discipline enslaved Africans on the continent and throughout the Americas. In the view of the barbaric curators at the Barbican, this dehumanising image is art!
Black people in the UK went ballistic. Sara Myers, a journalist who lives in Birmingham, launched a petition on change.org to close the exhibition. More than 23,000 people signed. In a statement on its website, the gallery takes no responsibility for provoking outrage. Instead, it blames protesters for not allowing themselves to be muzzled – like the black man on display:
“Last night as Exhibit B was opening at the Vaults, it became impossible for us to continue with the show because of the extreme nature of the protest and the serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff. Given that protests are scheduled for future performances of Exhibit B, we have had no choice but to cancel all performances of the piece.
“We find it profoundly troubling that such methods have been used to silence artists and performers and that audiences have been denied the opportunity to see this important work. Exhibit B raises, in a serious and responsible manner, issues about racism; it has previously been shown in 12 cities, involved 150 performers and been seen by around 25,000 people with the responses from participants, audiences and critics alike being overwhelmingly positive.
“The Barbican has done everything we can to ensure London performances can go ahead – including continued dialogue with protesters and senior Barbican staff meeting with the leaders of the campaign and attending a public meeting to discuss the issues raised by the work. We respect people’s right to protest, but are disappointed that this was not done in a peaceful way as had been previously promised by campaigners.
“We believe this piece should be shown in London and are disturbed at the potential implications this silencing of artists and performers has for freedom of expression.”
ACTING OUT ABUSE
Who is the ‘we’ that the curators at the Barbican speak for? Obviously, it is the artist, the eager audience willing to pay 20 pounds sterling to view the circus and the actors who prostituted themselves. Nitro, Britain’s oldest black theatre company, provided actors for the exhibition. In a blog post, ‘We’re casting for Exhibit B’, Nitro’s artistic director, Felix Cross, justifies his collaboration on the racist project:
“I believe strongly that the whole point of Exhibit B is to stare at a demon fully in the face, realise its ethical bankruptcy, question how far we have really moved on from then, and leave stronger, more knowledgeable and, yes, empowered.” I Perceptive black people knew they didn’t need to be reduced to spectacle in order to be ’empowered’. They raucously asserted their right to protest. They knew that the exhibition was racist. And even the artist acknowledged that he was reproducing old stereotypes.
But the spin Brett Bailey puts on the old racism is that he’s actually trying to confront it. By bringing it back! It is this kind of logic that makes me uneasy about the whole ‘truth and reconciliation’ project that consumed South Africans in the aftermath of apartheid. There can be no reconciliation without repentance.
That a white South African feels entitled to reproduce humiliating images of black people and call it ‘art’ is a clear sign that the legacy of apartheid is alive and well. Brett Bailey’s human zoo does not challenge racism; it acts out abuse.
The black British graphic designer Jon Daniel contributed a series of brilliant ‘Barbican and Bailey’ posters to the protest. Taking the model of the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey circus ads for the greatest show on earth, Daniel wickedly satirised the exhibition: “Good old-fashioned European clownialism”; “A work of unparalleled prejudice masquerading as art”.
I couldn’t help thinking of those monstrous, naked figures outside Emancipation Park. Our version of the human zoo! It’s a pity we don’t seem to understand that this work of clownialism is a monument to the enduring legacy of racism in Jamaica.