The Human Zoo and the ‘Censorship’ Debate
Today’s comment piece in The Observer by Catherine Bennett (“What price artistic freedom when the bullies turn up?”) was the latest piece of hand-wringing despair in our media at the success of the campaign to pressure the Barbican to withdraw (some say ‘censor’) ‘Exhibit B’. Bennett compared it to the protests over ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’ and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s ‘Behzti’, ending by admitting that “I struggle to see the essential difference between [Lee] Jasper’s determination to deny sight of Exhibit B to London audiences and the remarks by Lord Griffith-Jones in the Lady Chatterley trial, in 1960: ‘Is it a book that you would ever wish your wife or your servants to read?’” As no other white commentator seems willing to defend the protesters, let me attempt to clarify.
The artist who created it, Brett Bailey [some dispute the word ‘artist’], describes his work as follows:
“In Exhibit B there are 12 stages or tableaux vivants. In each, a performer physically characterises an objectified human being. Rather than portraying “the native in his natural surrounds” as human zoos did, each installation shows the brutality subjected upon asylum seekers in the EU or inflicted upon colonial subjects.
The listed components of each installation includes spectators – it is only complete with an audience. The installation is not about the cultural or anatomical difference between the colonial subject and the spectator; it is about the relationship between the two. It is about looking and being looked at. Both performer and spectator are contained within the frame.
Exhibit B is not primarily a work about colonial-era violence. Its main focus is current racist and xenophobic policies in the EU, and how these have evolved from the state-sanctioned racism of the late 19th century. These policies do not exist in historical isolation. They have been shaped over centuries. The dehumanising stereotypes of otherness instilled in the consciousness of our ancestors have been transmitted subconsciously and insidiously through the ages. Exhibit B demands that we interrogate these representations.”
So it is like the ‘Human Zoos’ of the 19th century but this time each performer ‘characterises an objectified human being’ rather than actually being ‘an objectified human being’. To me, and to many others, the difference, unfortunately, is slight. The spectators this time around are asked to “interrogate these representations”. Was that not that the case the first time around? Plenty of contemporary white people objected; others enjoyed the spectacle. People interrogated it and gave their answer. The Human Zoos would not have existed without a spectator. To claim that now “it is only complete with an audience” does not in any way make ‘Exhibit B’ new or unique. The wide boys and spivs (as I imagine them) who traded in African people and then displayed them as ‘freak show’ objects would not have made much headway (or money) if there wasn’t an audience for them. Bailey’s most disingenuous defence however, is that “the installation is not about the cultural or anatomical difference between the colonial subject and the spectator … it is about looking and being looked at.” If that were true, why then were the performers only black? If it were not about cultural difference, why did not Bailey choose to stage his ‘tableaux vivant’ with actors from a whole range of backgrounds? The performers were black and the spectators were (going to be) overwhelmingly white. When talking to white friends about it (most had not heard about it), they were unanimously shocked by the idea. What good could they get out of walking around this exhibition? They would learn that racism is wrong; that in the past, Africans were subjected to brutal treatment in the justification and perpetuation of white supremacy. Would this have been news? If, in the unlikely event that I had paid my £20 to watch naked brown-skinned people chained up and placed in Bailey’s ‘tableaux’ (perhaps a girlfriend’s mother, terminally ill with cancer, had asked the family to join her for her last ever birthday), I would have felt embarrassed by my role and disgusted by the spectacle of performers who had to be, according to Bailey himself, trained in “endurance” to stand or sit in these poses for so long. Are embarrassment and disgust the kind of responses we want from art?
So much for Bailey. It is not just the actors themselves who have been degraded. One thing that all white commentators have failed to acknowledge in their complaints about ‘censorship’ is the incredible organisation and mobilisation of black communities and the active involvement of thousands who took part in or supported a campaign that in only a few weeks proved strong enough and numerous enough to force the Barbican to back down and pull a sell-out show. Even if you disagree with the motives and are lamenting the outcome, you cannot deny that it is an impressive piece of organisation. Yet, this seems to have been missed by many white commentators. The protestors were ‘bullies’ (‘The Observer’), or acting out of “boastful ignorance” (The Independent), yet among the ‘you haven’t even seen it’ criticism none of these journalists realised that they themselves had not even talked to the protestors! Terrence Blacker even defended minstrel shows in his attack on the protesters (“the history of blacking up is more complicated than he… seems to think”) and preoccupied as he was in defaming the movement against Exhibit B, he could only reproduce quotes from other news outlets rather than interviewing “the stupid” people whose ignorance he despises.
In the run up to this, I heard the feeling put forward that black British people lack the unity and power to organise successful resistance. In discussions and meetings with my local arts organisation BEMA in the run up to the event, people were comparing unfavourably the comparative power of the Jewish community as a minority group who are capable of defending themselves and the representation of themselves in UK art and media. Yet, despite personal differences and a doomed sense of the inevitability of the process (surely a critically well-reviewed, sell-out show put on by an institution as strong as the Barbican could not be stopped?), 22,500 names were gathered in petition, pressure was put on directors and MPs, prominent people were shamed by their involvement and the exhibition’s organisers put in a position that they could not wriggle out of. The Barbican were compelled, belatedly, to hold a public discussion on Monday and then on seeing the determination of the protestors, cancel the show on Tuesday. How could an exhibition purporting to challenge the negative portrayal of black people maintain its integrity when thousands of black people were vocalising their disgust at the exhibition’s portrayal?
Whenever there is a democratic victory, however, there is a backlash by the establishment against it. White commentators have surpassed themselves in their objections. Bennett, for instance, quotes Sara Myers saying the show was “offensive to the memory of our ancestors”. That word ‘ancestors’ is an emotive trigger for white liberals and you can hear Bennett’s sniggers as she writes: “the last century’s preposterous … bans on penis allusions and the depiction of biblical characters have become today’s vague objections to an artwork’s unfairness, bad taste, inaccuracy, disrespect of ancestors: anything offensive enough to draw a crowd, worry the police and end in cancellation, due to safety concerns.” Having ‘ancestors’ is something that white people don’t and its vaguely spiritual connotations conflicts with post-enlightenment scientific, ‘rational’ and thus privileged discourse. Complaining about an offense to ancestors’ memory is, from her standards, the equivalent of censoring an image of a penis. She shows its very lack of rationality by making it part of “anything [that can] draw a crowd”. She seems to think that crowds are just ‘drawn’ by synchronous kneejerk mass offence with no suggestion that such crowds are the result of much organisation and campaigning and planning. Instead these ‘vague’ objectors are ‘worrying’ the poor police with their ‘unsafe’ protests.
Of course, the main thrust of these commentators’ objections has been that the protesters don’t understand art. In Bennett’s headline they are ‘bullies’. In her sub-headline they are ‘self-appointed censors’. Aside even from this condescending opinion of a group whose number included well-established artists, intellectuals and activists, this description does not reflect the reality of the actual power relations. She assumes, as all elites do, that protesters need leaders. Lee Jasper, she says, has stated “his credentials as a kind of amateur lord chamberlain, to whom any sensitive artistic material should be submitted” as if he were the only one who objected to it and everyone else was simply blindly following his example. The idea that those outside the gates were ‘self-appointed’ arbiters of what is art and what is not, ignores the way that gates work and is hypocritical in the extreme. The show must be good, thinks Bennett and her like, because establishment critics said it was good. She quotes an unnamed “French critic” who gushed that the exhibition “should run for several months so that all government ministers and scholars can attend” as if these people were the ideal audience of any art piece. The idea that ordinary people not in positions of power should be attending and passing judgments on works of art does not appeal. How could we possibly understand art without the explanation of our betters? Ian Dunt writing on politics.co.uk (“an impartial political website with no political affiliation”) sneered at the objections to the show: “The Guardian, that bastion of racism, called it ‘unbearable and essential'”. His sarcasm is revealing. In Dunt’s mind there is no way that The Guardian could possibly be racist. He follows this with another piece of amazing circular logic: “It is perfectly obvious the Barbican would never put on a racist event.” The Barbican is not racist therefore nothing they do is racist. “It would be almost impossible to smuggle a racist piece of theatre, TV or visual art into modern Britain,” he writes. Yet, they almost did!
The art debate is revealing. I have had the pleasure of listening to Ngoma Bishop’s well-informed opinions on this matter over the last few weeks. Here’s his Facebook response to a BBC debate:
“It should now be clear to us that most of the media (and certainly the BBC) will either ignore or misrepresent each and every one of the many valid arguments put forward by the campaign. Some of us are of the mistaken view that this is because they do not understand what we were/are saying. No; it is precisely because they do. There are of course good reasons why we should remain engaged with the ‘wider’ debate. There are even more reasons why perhaps we should not – not at this point anyway. One of the things I believe we should not do is pursue dialogue with those that insist on describing the putting of African heritage people (or indeed any people) in cages so that the public can pay £20 to gawp at them and calling it art. It is not art. Therefore the question of whether or not the campaign sought/seeks to censure art should not even be responded to, except maybe to restate that fact. Of course the counter argument will always be, what gives you the right to define what is and isn’t art. The response must always be ‘the same thing that gives you that right’. Remember if you have the right to define what art is then by extension you also have the right to define what it is not.”
So this is one view and one which I think is indeed valid: Exhibit B is NOT art. It may come under the category of sensationalism or spectacle but it does not fulfil the criteria of art. The Barbican, Brett Bailey and establishment media call it art and they can try and argue the case, but if they’re so sure it’s ok to tell us what art is and is not, then ALL people also have the right to say, ‘no, it is not art’ and their opinions (being more numerous and indeed better argued) deserve to be listened to. Especially when,
“Money that can rarely be found to promote exhibitions of genuine art produced by African heritage and other grass roots and community artists in the UK, was once again found courtesy of the Barbican Centre to enable this insult. An insult not just to the memory of those that had suffered horribly for centuries but to their descendants still undergoing recovery from a sustained genocide for which today there is not so much as an apology from the UK Government, much less a serious attempt to address the issue of reparations. The exhibition was to be promoted under the guise as art and justified by the notion that freedom of speech allows white artists to attempt to terrorise and humiliate African heritage people by chanting the mantra ‘we support free expression and condemn censorship’. Of course this premise only works if we also accept that African people have no right to themselves define what is acceptable artistic expression or even what artistic expression is unless our definitions reflect those of them that mean us no good.”
This is an argument that these commentators would do well to consider. The whole ‘art is being censored’ discourse ignores the fact that this isn’t just any art – this is art sponsored by a publically funded, large institution and that cash is not available to the vast majority of artists, much of whose work is sadly under-represented and unheard of in mainstream media.
The other view – also worth listening to – also says that the whole art/not art debate is irrelevant. Just because something is art, it does not make it good. The establishment holds up this thing that they (and only they can) call ‘Art’ as sacred, but art can also be bad art. It can be racist. It can even be good art and be racist. ‘Heart of Darkness’ as Chinua Achebe pointed out, is one such example – even though Joseph Conrad meant it to be (and indeed it does to some extent serve as) a critique of colonialism. There are many others. Art is neither good, nor bad in itself. Nazi propaganda films designed to dehumanise and degrade Jewish people may be art but it doesn’t mean we should tolerate their message.
Bailey’s work is at best crass. If he wanted to make us reflect on the history of the human zoos, surely there were better ways than simply reproducing one and claiming that this time around we are being asked to think about it, as if in the 19th century people were unable to do so. If Bailey genuinely wanted us to “interrogate these representations” surely what he WANTED was for us to close it down. It is the only correct response to such a work. Our sisters and brothers are in chains and we will liberate them – even just as a symbolic response to symbolic oppression. In fact I would really like to believe that, yes, this was all a very clever attempt to mobilise people against racism: here’s a dehumanising exhibition and this time around the black communities and those willing to listen and support their arguments will show that they are organised, independent and together enough to shame anyone who might be inclined towards accepting this kind of thing in the 21st century. Perhaps that was his secret plan all along. But probably it wasn’t.
This question of safety has also been banded around quite sanctimoniously. Ian Dunt (quoted above), got into a twitter argument with Lee Jasper, accusing him in Paxman-style repetitive questions of endangering the safety of paying punters.
Are these people so gullible that they accept official pronouncements at face value? Of course the Barbican said ‘we closed it down because of safety reasons’. What else could they say? ‘We thought we were promoting an important piece of anti-racist art about the oppression of black people and then 25,000 people told us that actually the work in question not only failed to achieve its stated aims but was actually doing the exact opposite. And we’re sorry. Next time we’ll commission African-heritage artists to make art pieces about African history and have proper public consultation about sensitive work.’ Every other public statement in response to a scandal (‘I didn’t inhale’; ‘I knew nothing about phone hacking’ etc.) would be taken with a pinch of salt. Why not this one?
I came down to picket the event, having signed up for the late shift that Tuesday night, and I arrived to discover that the Barbican had indeed closed it down. The atmosphere was joyful, celebratory, resolute, almost taken aback by the victory, but in no way violent. Everyone was happy to talk to me and to have me there, despite the lack of melanin in my skin pigment. The worst thing that punters to the exhibition would have faced is shame. And as I tweeted back to that thread: non-violently shaming people is less of a violence than putting on or going to a shameful exhibition.
Some of the performers have, belatedly, been asked to express their opinion on the matter. How much say did they have in the artistic creation of the piece? How many journalists were seeking out their opinion before the protests and petition started? It is only now they ask them when outraged white liberals are looking for insider black voices who can authenticate their own outrage. After the show had been closed, in an interview with the BBC, one performer, Stella Odunlami, a Gambian asylum seeker who was due to be playing ‘Found Object #2’, explained why she supported the exhibition:
“As a black child going to schools, I wasn’t told much about myself and about my history. All I was taught about was slavery. If you want to know exactly what happened, about how Europe was built on the degradation and dehumanisation of Africans, you have to research it yourself, and I think this piece was amazing in actually bringing that conversation to the fore and saying, are we doing anything different? Have we really changed?”
This exasperated comment is riven with contradictions. At school, she was not “told much about myself and about my history”. Instead she learned only about “slavery”. How then does more history of – and indeed almost exact recreation of – the ‘degradation and dehumanisation’ of people bought and sold for the entertainment of white people, actually disrupt or change this narrative? I do not judge her for taking part – I am in no position to do so. And although it may not have been anywhere near Odunlami’s decision-making, most actors are out of work most of the time. And in all employment, money is the new chain, lack of it the whip.
I have written poems with black characters in them. I live in East London so it would be strange if I had not done. However, if 20,000 people – or indeed 20 people – told me that I had got it wrong, I would certainly scrap the poem. Indeed, I remember one poem I had written about my girlfriend’s full and beautiful figure, attempting to celebrate non-conventional models of beauty. I showed it to my friend and fellow poet, Michelle Madsen, who could see what I was trying to do but told me quite bluntly that it did not work. It just sounded like a poem about how much I like big boobs. I have never performed the poem. Although Bailey’s exhibition may well have appealed to the ‘government ministers and scholars’ it is clear that it did not sit well with the majority of black artists or (if we can use this term) thinking people in Britain in the 21st century. If you are going to speak for other people (Bailey is white, the history he represented was of black Africans), in whatever field, it is not only helpful but absolutely necessary that you consult with the people you are speaking for.
The whole question of censorship and art is a distraction from the real issues involved. Although Bennett struggles to see the difference between the state censors banning ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and a large group of self-organised people making a hard-to-dispute case against the artistic merits of ‘Exhibit B’, there is to me a clear difference. This time around it was the “servants and wives” who objected to the representation of themselves not Lord Whatshisname fearing the bad influence on his subordinate dependents by being exposed to art that spoke about their lives. Many – if not all – black artists feel censored at source. Even if you think there is no such institutional racism in the British arts ( “The Arts Council funding of arts infrastructure is not fairly representing the 14% black and minority communities. 14% of ACE’s overall three-year investment of £2.4bn would equate to £336m – that’s £112m per year. The black and minority ethnic community contribute around £62m per year into the overall arts budget. Yet, the current yearly figure currently invested in black and minority ethnic-led work is £4.8m.” Index on Censorship) you have to explain why so many people feel like they are up against exactly that, not being considered for commissions, not getting the media reviews, not getting the public funding, being pigeon-holed as ‘urban’ or ‘black’ rather than having their art considered as it is for white people, separate from their cultural background. Zena Edwards, who has also been very helpful to me in shaping my thoughts on this issue linked to an article from This Day (a blog by Wail Qasim), which gets to the crux of the matter: “The systematic exclusion of black struggle from the art industry is the real censorship.”