Back to IndieWire

Furor Over Controversial ‘Exhibit B: A Human Zoo’ Which Features Caged African Tribesmen & Women on Display

Furor Over Controversial 'Exhibit B: A Human Zoo' Which Features Caged African Tribesmen & Women on Display

Roll up, roll up! Come peek at the semi-naked black woman chained to the bed of a French colonial officer, waiting to be raped – or why not marvel at the ‘exotic’ silhouette of Hottentot Venus?  Or perhaps the grotesque ‘severed’ heads singing cotton field songs will entice you?

Brett Bailey’s controversial installation Exhibit B: A human zoo is based on the popular spectacle that toured in Europe and America during the 19th century right up until the early 1930’s.  In it, enslaved African tribesmen and women were caged and displayed – for the entertainment of white audiences.  This 2014 reconstruction would not only revisit the original visual exploits but would encourage people to saunter through installations depicting modern societal taboos such as “deportation centers, racial profiling and reduction of people to numbers” as well as revisiting the original racist exploits of the human zoos.

It is important to mention that Bailey is a White South African from a privileged background; early contact with his black countrymen were as servants. After the apartheid, he began drawing on African music and rituals as influence for his early works systematically leading to being called  “Africa’s most fearless theatre-maker.”

Having toured in parts of Europe and South Africa, Exhibit B had already sparked racial debates and controversy both in favor and against; when it was announced to be making its way from Edinburgh to London the installation had been praised as “brave” and having an “overwhelmingly positive response internationally, 25,000 spectators had experienced the horrors of the human zoo. But they didn’t bank on daily protests, kickstarted by and large to an online petition titled:-

“Withdraw the racist Exhibition “Exhibit B – The Human Zoo” from showing at the Barbican from 23rd-27th September”**

The petition, launched by Sara Myers (a Black Birmingham based journalist and activist), garnered over 10,000 signatures before it had opened it’s doors, I was one of them. Myers decried the Barbican’s involvement in the project as “complicit racism” and many agreed it had no place being shown here – and whom exactly was this important exhibit really for?  When the Barbican caught wind of the growing online criticism of the show, they issued a statement dismissing Myers and other naysayers calls for the show to be cancelled.

Supporters of the show including prominent British culture editors, journalists, and the black actors (cast locally at every tour) partaking in the exhibit, were quick to affirm that if anything all the controversy was kind of the point, that it’s both “unbearable” and “essential” for Europeans to face up to the reality of their colonial past –

“[T]he installations makes us confront how we look, where we look and what we are prepared to see.” – Lyn Gardner  Guardian online

Well that did sound plausible, even acceptable.  Most definitely, in the UK, that part is all but omitted from history lessons, and yet we’re always reminded that we Britain sought to abolish slavery it first.  A comment made by Bailey, made in an interview was more telling and reason for protest:

“For all I know, I could look back at Exhibit B in 10 years and say, ‘Oh my God, I am doing exactly what they are accusing me of.’ But that’s the risk you take. It comes with the territory.” – Bill Bailey ***

People, not just Black people, across Europe particularly in Berlin and the UK wanted to know what business a White man dubbed as “Africa’s most fearless Theatre Maker” had telling this story: “I’m creating a journey that’s embracing and immersive, in which you can be delighted and disturbed, but I’d like you to be disturbed more than anything.”

Despite underestimated furor, the exhibit opened on the 23rd August but after daily protests outside the Barbican center doors, a rigourous retweet of the twitter handle #boycottthehumanzoo and a petition that garnered close to 23,000 signatures (that included noted Black British figures designer Lord Boateng and Britain’s first Black cabinet Minister, Simon Woolley) Exhibit B was finally shut down.

Barbican reps accused protestors of staging intimidating protests and yet no arrests were made; pompous culture editors and art enthusiasts lambasted the victory closure as censorship and ‘missing the point’ entirely but Woolley said it best as he stressed that efforts were made to communicate behind closed doors –  “They underestimated it. They failed to see people’s anger at being exploited in this way… This was a vanity project. Having people objectified in this humiliating way was always going to cause a fierce reaction. It is a shame that it reached this stage but the feeling was that no one was listening” – ****

I agree, it all sounded too temporary an affliction for the intended audience; a chance for surface guilt and consequentially a reason to feel better about a history that happened and is too late to change? So why go back in this way and why did people get to shine a light, once again, in such a crass manner to make a point? The Holocaust, historical events leading up to Civil Rights, are all part of our history that is encouraged and open to discussion from a young age.  If the purpose really is to educate about European Colonialism and racial subjugation prior to the 20th century, then it should and would be better to start putting it in our history books.

*http://mg.co.za/article/2014-09-30-theatre-reps-brett-baileys-show-cancellation-reeks-of-censorship

** http://www.change.org/p/withdraw-the-racist-exhibition-exhibition-b-the-human-zoo

*** http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/aug/11/-sp-exhibit-b-human-zoo-edinburgh-festivals-most-controversial

This Article is related to: Features and tagged