Boycott the Human Zoo

On 23rd September the Barbican is scheduled to host South African Brett Bailey’s ‘Exhibition B’ that replicates the ‘human zoos’ of earlier colonial times, replicating the objectification of Black bodies to make an artistic point. Imagine topless women in tribal gear; a woman chained to a bed as a sex slave for her colonial masters; and the replication of the grotesquery of Hottentot Venus, a Black woman paraded in a cage because of her ‘extraordinary’ breasts and bottom. Pay £20 and this is what you will encounter at Exhibition B. A national campaign has been organised by Birmingham based Sara Myers to have this so-called art show cancelled on the grounds that in replicating the human zoos it reinforces, rather than challenges the racism it is meant to be a commentary on. We agree that this exhibition is an outrage and should be cancelled immediately, for the following reasons.


‘Art’ is not beyond censorship


In debates about whether it is right to call for the cancellation of the show the issues of censorship has come up. In defending the exhibition Trevor Phillips, formerly of the Black community, explained that:


I am, in principle, opposed to the banning of artists' work, since for the most part, this power has always been used by the state and by oppressive regimes to deny a voice to minorities


The censorship of art makes people uncomfortable and for good reasons due to freedom of expression. However, the idea that art is beyond censorship is ludicrous. A cursory search of the internet will find a myriad of artwork  is racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic that would clearly not be allowed to be displayed in public. When art is offensive in its nature it is rightly censored, as freedom of expression does not mean that people have the freedom to racially insult. Anyone advocating the ‘art should not be censored’ argument should be campaigning for the Barbican to commission an exhibition of Jihadist ‘art’, celebrating the glory of 7/7 (I welcome Mr Phillip’s thoughts on this issue). Exhibit B should be rightly censored because it causes grievous racist offense, as demonstrated by the wealth of people opposed to it on these grounds (and it does no good finding some Black people who are in favour of it to defend it on this point; the offense doesn’t have to have been felt by the ENTIRE group for something to be racist). 


Objectification of Black bodies


Exhibit B is racist for a number of reasons. The first one we will deal with is that it continues the objectification of the Black body that was at the heart of the original human zoos. Black flesh (in particular Black female naked flesh) is put on exhibit for the world to see. As a performer in Edinburgh asks ‘how do you know we are not entertaining people the same way the human zoos did?’ A performer in Poland, Berthe Njole, had the experience of a group of guys ‘laughing and making comments about my boobs and my body. They didn’t realise I was a human being. They thought I was a statue.’ These same people came back and apologised at the end but this hardly mitigates the reality of objectification; apparently it would have been okay to laugh if she was a statue.


A question arises here about why Black bodies? What is it about the Black body that is of such interest to the director and the audience? The reply can’t simply be that it is a record of history, connecting people into the past. There are plenty of periods in the past that require re-examination and artistic representation, so there must be something of particular interest in the Black body that has caught the attention of the director. This objectification is a standard trope of mainstream popular culture, demonstrating how it is at the root of how the White population understand their relationship to Black people.  It is perhaps unsurprising then that a medium that objectifies the Black body in all its glory is the chose mechanism for the production. Liberal Whites get to feel the ‘discomfort’ of their colonial history whilst fawning over the naked and prostrate Black body. There are better and much more appropriate ways to remind people of the history of human zoos, without recreating them in the flesh.


Reinforcement of Black passivity


Even if we accept the stated noble intentions to ‘provoke audiences to reflect on the historical roots of today’s prejudices and policies’ we cannot overlook the reality that Black bodies are being used to convey a message to White audiences. The objectification is a strategy to evoke guilt and discomfort for those with a colonial legacy.  Even if the motives are pure (note the if) the vehicle is tainted. This exhibition reproduces the idea that Black people are passive agents, who are used as conduits for White people to speak to each other. Bailey himself admits that his methods for the performance are ‘very difficult to get right…the performers are not asked to look with any anger at all. They must work with compassion.’ This is not Black actors speaking for themselves, but being a mouthpiece for the director’s message on race relations.


The idea that this is an acceptable relationship is only tenable because we are talking about Black people, who are apparently still viewed as incapable of speaking on our own behalf. It is only because of the power of White privilege that Bailey would conceive of doing this exhibition, the Barbican would consider hosting it and there is any debate about whether it is acceptable. We have become very use to the idea of White people speaking for us. However, the days when we are used as mouthpieces for messages on race and racism for well-intentioned White people are long gone. To accept the disempowerment (disembodiment even) that this exhibition represents is an insult to the centuries of struggle against racial apartheid that our forebears have been engaged in.  If there is a message, a story to tell about human zoos, it is ours to tell.


When the messenger is the message


Sometimes the messenger defines the message. Brett Bailey is described by Jan Ryan of UK Arts International (who are also supporting the project) as being ‘a South African who has grown up in an environment which has repressed the majority of its people.’ That is clearly disingenuous, he is a South African who grew up as part of the minority that oppressed the Black majority in the country. This vastly impacts on his legitimacy in terms of the representations of Black people he chooses to portray. Him choosing to put on this exhibition is akin to a German organising a piece of ‘art’ that had Jews dressed in prison garb, with numbers tattooed to their arms, locked in a contrived concentration camp. The idea is simply unimaginable. I think we can agree that this would be completely unacceptable and censored without a second thought.

The problem at the heart of this issue is that for some reason some people just don’t see the horrors that have been experienced by Black people in the same way. The sorrow at the heart of this is episode is that no one organising this exhibition saw the most obvious parallel because of is a devaluation of Black life, suffering and experience. Even once it has been bought to their attention they continue to deny that this is the case.


The experiences being depicted in Exhibit B are a window into one of the most sustained and barbaric periods of human history. There are deep social, political and psychological scars that are still alive today as a result of this history. It is impossible to underestimate the emotional trauma and offense that this can cause to the Black community when handled incorrectly. Exhibit B is a prime example of ‘art’ that offends, that crosses the line into racial exploitation and abuse by objectifying and disempowering Black voices in the articulation of a story that is central to our being. The result is a grotesque parody of suffering, played out by voiceless Black cadavers. There is no place in a progressive society for Exhibition B, it should be cancelled with immediate effect.  If you pay money to go see it be aware that you are colluding in the worst kind of racial exploitation that draws on a number of well-established tropes of racism. I say the worst kind because it is being done in the pretence (or worse perhaps, the belief) that this is for our own benefit.


Boycott the Human Zoo

Dr Kehinde Andrews is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Birmingham City University and a founding member of the Organisation of Black Unity. He is author of ‘Resisting Racism: Race, racism and the Black supplementary school movement’ and research specialism is contemporary racisms and resistance.

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