Skip to main content

Exhibit B - Should The Barbican Have Cancelled Brett Bailey's Edinburgh Hit?

When Brett Bailey's Third World Bunfight company presented Exhibit B as
part of the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival, the show's
twenty-first century reimagining of colonial era human zoos, when black
Africans were shown in front of their white thrill-seeking masters as
novelty artefacts to gaze on, garnered a slew of five-star reviews.

As someone who gave Exhibit B a five star review in this magazine, I
was aware before I saw the show's series of tableau vivant of the
accusations of racism that had been levelled against Bailey, a white
South African artist. These accusations came from protesters in various
countries where Exhibit B had been seen, as well as in Britain, where
it was set to transfer from Edinburgh to the Barbican's Vaults space in
London this week.

Today's announcement by the Barbican that their week-long showing of
Exhibit B has been cancelled following protests on the first night that
saw the road outside the venue blocked comes following an online
petition organised by journalist Sara Myers, whose call to the
Barbican's Sir Nicholas Kenyon to withdraw Exhibit B attracted some
22,989 signatories.

While I respect the right of every one of those signatories who has
seen Exhibit B to protest against the show and to highlight the racism
they saw in it, I wonder how those who signed it but haven't seen the
show are feeling. Here, after all, was what looked to me like a serious
meditation on racism  performed by a cast of black actors who
presumably became involved in Exhibit B of their own volition, and who
presumably believe that what they are doing isn't racist in any way.

I may be wrong, and if any of the performers in Exhibit B feel that
they have been cajoled into taking part in it in any way, or feel that
they are somehow being manipulated, exploited or misrepresented in any
way, I hope they will speak out. As too I hope Brett Bailey will speak
out about any charges of colonialism or racism that have been lodged
against him.

My personal experience of Exhibit B, as I attempted to look the
performers in the eye while they silently depicted real-life people
from past and present, including the bound and gagged immigrant who
died on an aeroplane while in the care of a private security firm in
2010, was uncomfortable to say the least.

For a white wet liberal male like myself who comes from Liverpool, a
city that built its fortune on the back of slavery, it provoked
feelings of guilt concerning how one sector of society could exploit
another with such cruelty. I witnessed something that was complex and
deeply troubling, but in my mind, at least, I did not see something
that was racist. Indeed, in my mind, Exhibit B was opposed to racism at
every level in one of the most powerful theatrical spectacles I have
ever seen in the last twenty years of writing about theatre and art.
But then, as a white, wet liberal male, I would say that, wouldn't I?

There was a time when protests against art were left to the self-styled
moral majority of Mary Whitehouse and her fundamentalist associates,
who would cheerily call on plays and TV shows which they considered to
be depraved or immoral to be banned outright, despite the fact that
they'd never actually seen them. While the protesters against Exhibit B
aren't acting on such eccentric religious grounds, but on serious
accusations of racism, the same sense of absolutism is there.

But at least I had the opportunity to see Exhibit B and was able make
my own mind up about it and see what all the fuss was about. Friends
who saw Exhibit B have hated it, and have posited some very solid
arguments why. The show's cancellation, however, means that no-one else
in London and probably anywhere else in the UK will have the choice to
praise or condemn something they've seen for themselves. Whichever way
you dress that up, it's called censorship.

The List, September 2014



Popular posts from this blog

Peter Brook – The Prisoner

Peter Brook is no stranger to Scotland, ever since the guru of European and world theatre first brought his nine-hour epic, The Mahabharata, to Glasgow in 1988. That was at the city’s old transport museum, which by 1990 had become Tramway, the still-functioning permanent venue that opened up Glasgow and Scotland as a major channel for international theatre in a way that had previously only been on offer at Edinburgh International Festival.
Brook and his Paris-based Theatre des Bouffes du Nord company’s relationship with Tramway saw him bring his productions of La Tragedie de Carmen, La Tempete, Pellease et Mellisande, The Man Who…, and Oh Les Beaux Jours – the French version of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days – to Glasgow.
Thirty years on from The Mahabharata, Brook comes to EIF with another piece of pan-global theatre as part of a residency by Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, which Brook has led since he decamped to Paris from London in the early 1970s. The current Edinburgh residency has alr…

Romeo And Juliet - Shakespeare's Globe Comes to Glasgow

Open-air Shakepeares are a summer-time perennial of the theatre calendar, attracting picnicking audiences as much as midges. More often than not, such romps through the grass are frothy, heritage industry affairs designed to be accompanied by strawberries and cream and not to be taken too seriously. Shakespeare’s Globe theatre company look set to change such perceptions when they open their outdoor tour of Romeo And Juliet in Glasgow next week as part of the West End festival.

For the two young actors taking the title roles of the doomed lovers, it will also be something of a homecoming. Richard Madden and Ellie Piercy both studied in Glasgow prior to turning professional. Indeed, Madden has yet to graduate from the acting course at RSAMD, and, as well as facing the pressures of playing such a meaty role in close proximity to the audience, will have the added anxiety of being assessed and graded by his tutors.

“This is the end of my third year,” says Madden following a Saturday mornin…

Suzy Glass – Message from the Skies

Freedom of movement matters to Suzy Glass, the arts and events producer currently overseeing the second edition of Message from the Skies.This animated literary derive around the city forms part of this year’s Edinburgh’s Hogmanay programme, and runs right through till Burns’ Night. Glass’ concerns are inherent in the event itself, which has commissioned six writers from different disciplines and experiences to each pen a love letter to Europe. Each writer has then paired up with a composer and visual artist or film-maker, with the results of each collaboration projected in monumental fashion on the walls of one of half a dozen of the capital’s most iconic buildings.
With venues stretching from the south side of Edinburgh to Leith, and with one city centre stop requiring a walk up Calton Hill, there is considerable legwork required to complete the circuit. It shouldn’t be considered a race, however, and audiences are free to move between venues at their leisure, visiting each site on d…