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Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B: Art could be as jagged as broken glass

Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B: Art could be as jagged as broken glass

Wild, angry protests in London as the Barbican Centre opened South African artist Brett Bailey’s installation, Exhibit B, draw attention to the conflicted way people have reacted to Bailey’s controversial work that helps shine a spotlight on British reactions to Africa and Africans. Does this protest and the angry debate that has followed these protests mean Bailey has really gotten under the skin of people? Veteran arts journalist and editor ROBERT GREIG reports from London on the resulting cultural donnybrook.

The leader of the successful protest in London against Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B described her qualifications thus: 1) mother; 2) black; 3) African; and 4) working for “my community”. Case closed, m’lud. Too bad about theatre. Vox populi, vox mulier.

The gist of the complaint was that the display of black people in cages demeaned all blacks and evoked, painfully, aspects of their history best forgotten or dealt with privately. This wasn’t quite the same as the South African approach of black activists claiming title to “their” history, but on the same slippery slope. Some 24,000 signed the petition (to cancel the work) to the private Barbican theatre before its opening on 24 September.

Previously, Bailey and others met with the enraged to try to discuss the matter. According to Lemn Sissay, the Ethiopian-born poet and playwright, the petitioners had much to say and little need to listen. [Sissay has performed in South Africa and has become thoroughly attuned to South Africa’s cultural world from his time in that country. – Ed] They had read the descriptions from the Edinburgh festival. Black people in cages demeaned blacks. Exhibit B rode over black pain. It neither empowered blacks to overcome the effects of historical horrors nor offered the compensation of free crèches, beer and TVs. (OK, I added the last bit.)

No good trying to explain the serious intent of an installation described by leading director Peter Brook as “an extraordinary achievement”, in criticising the “human zoos” and ethnographic displays that showed Africans as objects of scientific curiosity through the 19th and early 20th centuries.

On opening night, then, a spontaneous, organised protest at the theatre blocked access and chased the cast away. The police arrived and had a nice, understanding chat with the mob. The Barbican cancelled, first the show, and then the run, in what the Index of Censorship called defensiveness – and what seems the gutlessness of private organisations facing controversy.

All this is grimly reminiscent of 1995 when the now Speaker of the South African Parliament, Baleka Mbete, sought to vanquish a vagina-shaped ashtray sculpture by Kaolin Thompson – in the name of preserving African dignity, propriety and culture and all manner of such good things. [Of course, more recently still, there have been those serious ructions over Brett Murray’s The Spear and Zanele Muholi’s photographic work as well. – Ed]

Here zealotry has much to do with the shock of the new and unusual in protecting protect Black female African community workers from the pains of the past. I don’t imagine that for similar reasons they’ll try to ban Othello or The Tempest, but you never know: theatre is a soft target, one associated with the folk demons of privilege.

Exhibit B has additional qualifications as a target: it was by foreigners, directed by a white South African (oppressor) with a black cast (oppressed, and their denial proves the case). The subtle reasons for targeting Exhibit B are intricate and have to do with forms of theatre and experiment.

The British theatre, its literature and fine arts don’t really do experimental; and when that surfaced in Exhibit B, the mainstream media and audiences seemed to find it a little dodgy. And in this island kingdom, work from South Africa is typically managed by slotting it into pre-existing categories: Happy Natives at Play; Noble Savages; Brave Witnesses to Apartheid; and Injustice – aka the Triumph of the Human Spirit. Formally and thematically, Bailey’s work acknowledges, evades and also turns these categories back on the audience.

It is apparently difficult for some British to entirely grasp a theatre where black actors, some in chains, voluntarily sit behind bars, and insist on being seen, not just stared at from safe distance. And why aren’t they moaning and wailing? They don’t submit to audience members’ gazes but return them; over time, a symbolic dialogue of mutual curiosity and regard develops.

The “de-theatricalising” of theatre and replacing power relations based on distance with interaction is a characteristic of the most significant South African theatre. And intrinsic to it is the abandonment of the formal written script as a determinant of the production. Increasingly, South African theatre has used history itself as the “script”, moved from the theatre, engaged with the audience to extent of casting them as actors. All this is very strange in the UK.

Being slippery, subtle and novel, Bailey’s work evades the stabilities and certainties of the reigning and very old UK theatrical conventions involving the script, and the physical distance between performer and audience and acting that stresses the voice rather than the body.

Objections to the work now, however, involve a literalism that conflates the seen and the signified. What is seen is treated as a recommendation or statement and treated with reactions appropriate to statement or recommendation, not theatrical work. For example, Edward Bond’s 1965 play, Saved, depicted the stoning of a baby. The resultant outrage effectively blamed the theatre for the idea that it might occur, and for seeming to commend it (“normalise”) it. In other words, theatre is accused of commending outrage. Naïve but usual, and to zealots, not un-useful.

The row about Exhibit B highlights a problem familiar to new and mature democracies. It is as simple as simply striking a balance between different groups’ exercise of their respective rights. I think the problem involves the question of to what degree rights can be exercised as a function of social power – status, wealth, political power, or a mix of them. Artists represent an underprivileged class; in a country like Britain, those waving their historical injuries, like Indian beggars in search of coins, are, by comparison, privileged. Perhaps the former need an affirmative action to protect their rights from the usual victims. DM

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Since the debacle at the Barbican and the writing of this story, numerous manifestos have been issued on this work and the controversy that has enveloped it. Most recently, a group of prominent international theatre figures have issued the following statement:

We, representatives of the 14 theatres, festivals and arts organisations from South Africa, Scotland, France, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Austria, Holland, Poland and England, which, in the last 4 years, produced, co-produced and presented the art projects Exhibit A /Exhibit B, by South-African artist Brett Bailey, express our concern at the cancellation of the production at the Barbican Centre in London last week.

Whilst we recognise the right of people to protest against any artwork that sets out to provoke, challenge and inspire a reflection and dialogue, we affirm our position that the manner in which Brett Bailey’s work was cancelled goes beyond the realm of protest and finds itself in the arena of censorship.

As Artistic Directors, Presenters and Promoters who have seen the production, we fully support this theatre work which is a critique of colonial exhibitions and human zoos. We refute the idea that Exhibit B re-enacts these spectacles of dehumanisation and exotification. It is in no way a racist art project but obviously and completely the contrary.

Exhibit B asks its audience – one person at a time – to stand alone, very close to a performer, sharing some extremely uncomfortable truths; looking and listening, performer and audience together. Perhaps the most powerful moments we have all experienced in Exhibit B were those instants when eyes meet. For some, such moments can never change a political perspective or personal point of view, but for most people who have had the opportunity to experience Exhibit B as a public event, the simple act of being in such close proximity to a performer, sharing and evoking such complex historical and emotional realities, is genuinely powerful, palpable, undeniable. The actions of the protesters have completely missed the point of Exhibit B. How could it be otherwise, as they haven’t even seen it? In attempting to portray something as complex and nuanced as Exhibit B as nothing more than a polemical exercise, without ever having shared its powerful intimacy, they have denied a very subtle and humane work of art, its right to be seen and heard.

The performance was presented to more than 25,000 audience members in our various cities in the last four years. It was received in a positive way by a very diverse and international crowd. The effect on this audience is important as the piece challenges ethnocentric beliefs and questions our relationship to otherness today.

We also recognise that art which is rooted in the political context will evoke social responses. In this regard we recognise the need for on-going dialogue between artists, arts management and communities. We believe that such a dialogue will create a space for a meeting of minds and hearts and help us all to solidify the power of the arts to drive social change, heal us from our painful pasts and empower us to engage proactively with the contradictions in our present societies. Censoring art denies all of society the opportunity to make informed choices.

We empathise with Brett Bailey, his crew and also to all the 150 performers who have engaged into this essential project and who are censored from being the instruments through which art mediates with society. We thank them for challenging us and we hope that they will be able to express freely themselves through their art in the future. As Brett Bailey puts it: “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?”

Brett Bailey issued a detailed statement in the Guardian.


Wiener Festwochen – Vienna – Austria – Stefanie Carp (former Curator Drama) & Stefan Schmidtke

Festival Theaterformen – Braunschweig / Hannover – Germany – Martine Dennewald & Anja Dirks (Festival du Belluard – Fribourg – Switzerland)

Kiasma – Helsinki – Finland – Jonna Strandberg

Kunstenfestivaldesarts – Brussels – Belgium – Christophe Slagmuylder

KVS – Brussels – Belgium – Jan Goossens

National Arts Festival – Grahamstown – South Africa – Ismail Mahomed

Foreign Affairs of the Berliner Festspiele – Berlin – Germany – Frie Leysen (former Artistic Director) & Matthias Von Hartz

Holland Festival – Amsterdam – Holland – Annemieke Keurentjes

Vooruit – Ghent – Belgium – Matthieu Goeury

Festival d’Avignon 2013 – Avignon – France – Vincent Baudriller (Théâtre de Vidy – Lausanne – Switzerland)

Festival d’Automne – Paris – France – Marie Collin

Le 104 – Paris – France – José Manuel Goncalves

Maillon – Strasbourg – France – Bernard Fleury

International Theatre Festival DIALOG – Wroclaw – Poland – Krystyna Meissner

Edinburgh International Festival – Edinburgh – Scotland – Jonathan Mills

Barbican Centre – London – United Kingdom – Louise Jeffreys

– – – –

Read more:

  • Exhibit A, B and C; Brett Bailey’s homepage website

  • Third World Bunfight / Brett Bailey

  • Exhibit B, the Barbican announcement of the closure of the installation

  • Exhibit B: is the ‘human zoo’ racist? The performers respond – The show, which displays live black actors, has been targeted by protesters, but the actors say that it is a powerful depiction of racism past and present at the Guardian

  • A Racially Charged Exhibition in London Is Canceled After Protests at the New York Times

Photo: Activists publicly demonstrating opposition to Brett Bailey’s ‘Exhibit B-Human Zoo’, outside the Guildhall in central London. Date: 11th September 2014. (Photo by Museum Geographies)


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