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
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
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