The Human Zoo (compact version)
Here is a shorter version of a longer blog piece: Catherine Bennett (“What price artistic freedom when the bullies turn up?”) writes 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.
Brett Bailey’s Defence
The artist who created it, Brett Bailey [some dispute the word ‘artist’], describes his work in The Guardian’s Comment Is Free saying that the:
“performer physically characterises an objectified human being.” and that “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.”
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? 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. 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?
Organising the Protest
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. 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 protesters 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 protesters! Terrence Blacker could only reproduce quotes from other news outlets rather than interviewing “the stupid” people whose ignorance he despises.
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?), The Barbican were compelled, belatedly, to hold a public discussion on Monday and then on seeing the determination of the protesters, 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. You can hear Bennett’s sniggers as she writes: “the last century’s preposterous … bans on penis allusions … 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 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 protestors 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. 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 logic: “It is perfectly obvious the Barbican would never put on a racist event.” The Barbican is not racist therefore there is nothing that they can do that 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
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:
“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. … 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 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.
How to respond to Bailey’s work
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.
The Safety Question
This question of safety has also been banded around quite sanctimoniously. Ian Dunt (quoted above), got into a twitter argument with Lee Jasper attacking him in Paxman-style questions about whether or not people were safe from the protesters.
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 and 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, it is less violent to non-violently shame people than to put on or attend a shameful exhibition.
The Performers’ Opinion
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? I do not judge the actors for taking part – I am in no position to do so. And although it may not have been anywhere near their decision-making, it is a fact that most actors are out of work most of the time. And in all employment, money is the new chain, lack of it the whip.
Speaking on Behalf of Others
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. 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.
Censorship and Power
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. Many – if not all – black artists feel censored at source. Even if you think there is no such institutional racism in the British arts (see Index on Censorship art council figures) 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.”