Exhibit B: A Racist Failure Or An Uncomfortable Truth


“…until you heal the wounds of the past, you will continue to bleed…”

— Iyanla Vanzant —

Exhibit B, is a haunting installation (performance art piece) that critiques the ‘human zoos’ and ethnographic exhibits committed during white colonial rule in German South West Africa, British ruled Southern Africa and in the Belgian and French Congos.

The director of Exhibit B, white South African artist Brett Bailey, sets out to confront the disturbing phenomenon where Africans were brutally objectified as scientific curiosities or merely locked up in cages for the amusement of wealthy Victorian Europeans. He described his work as “a human installation on imperialism in Africa and racism”.

Bailey translates this perverse spectacle into twelve tableaux, each featuring motionless ‘characters’ placed in settings that, rather than portraying “the native in his natural surrounds” as human zoos did, show the cruelty inflicted upon modern-day asylum seekers in the European Union in a not so subtle ‘secondary storyline.’

For instance, Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman the so-called “Hottentot Venus” who was “discovered” by British ship’s doctor William Dunlop and exhibited for 5 years as a ‘freak’ in theatres and halls (because of her unusual physical features) in England and Europe and who, after her death in 1815, was dissected and her remains put on display, stands in Exhibit B expressionless on a turning plinth.

Brett Bailey - “Exhibit B”

Brett Bailey – “Exhibit B”

In another tableaux, modern-day black asylum-seekers are presented as “found objects”, although they stand before the audience as living and breathing human beings. Bailey serves his masterstroke at the end of the installation, when the pictures and the biographies of the ordinary black men and women who perform in Exhibit B are displayed… symbolically bringing them into the room along with the aching echo of their ancestors.

Exhibit B has already been shown in 12 cities, involving 150 local performers — participating ‘actors’ are all from the area or city where the installation is hosted. The installation has been seen by over 25,000 people with and overwhelmingly positive responses from participants, audiences and critics alike.

Peter Brook described Exhibit B as “an extraordinary achievement.”

The Belgium newspaper LE SOIR called it “terrible and magnificent… should run for several months so that all government ministers and scholars can attend.”

La Libre Belgique wrote: “How can one small exhibition about our colonial history hit harder than an entire year full of activities around the fiftieth anniversary of Congolese independence last year?”

The South African newspaper Mail & Guardian — one of the strongest voices against the Apartheid regime and once suspended in 1988 by one of Apartheid’s strongest proponents, then State President P. W. Botha — said: “That Bailey has managed to negotiate this problematic and highly sensitive arena with almost faultless judgment is deserving of extraordinary praise.”

Exhibit B was never supposed to be a comfortable, white-washed guilt-ridden portrayal of imperialism as it is taught in schools across Europe. Let’s be honest: how many school kids know anything about the impact and legacy of slavery? And even if they (we) read the most detailed facts of colonial history in a book, they’d (we’d) quickly forget about them. Whereas a thought-provoking and confrontational work of art, like the uncompromising Exhibit B, takes the hard-hitting, gut-wrenching truth and harpoons it straight through your entire being. It rips at your heart. It fucks with your head. It changes you… that’s if you are able to see (witness) it.

Brett Bailey - “Exhibit B”

Brett Bailey – “Exhibit B”

Unfortunately, Exhibit B’s five-day run at The Vaults in London was cancelled on Tuesday 23 September. After a vociferous campaign, Barbican officials decided to end an impasse with demonstrators, by cancelling the five-day run. The campaigners claimed to have obtained more than 20,000 signatures against what they called “institutionalised and complicit racism”, challenging Bailey’s right as a white South African to speak about racism in the way he does.

Leading the campaign against Exhibit B (#boycottthehumanzoo), activist and journalist Sara Myers, said: “I want my children to grow up in a world where the barbaric things that happened to their ancestors are a thing of the past. We have come a long way since the days of the grotesque human zoo – we should not be taking steps back now.”

Adding his voice, Simon Woolley, coordinator of Operation Black Vote, said: “This [Exhibit B] was a vanity project. Having people objectified in this humiliating way was always going to cause a fierce reaction.”

Among the strongest supporters of Exhibit B are the actors involved. Prior to Tuesday’s protest, in an effort to deflate the tension, the actors said in a statement: “We find this piece to be a powerful tool in the fight against racism. Individually, we chose to do this piece because art impacts people on a deeper emotional level that can spark change.

The exhibit does not allow for any member of the audience, white, black or otherwise, to disassociate themselves from a system that contains racism within it. We are proud to be black performers in this piece; to represent our history, our present and ourselves by playing the various characters taken from the record books.”

Still, the actors failed to pacify the angry protesters, who cried victory when Exhibit B got cancelled on the eve of its premiere on accounts of fear for the safety of the performers, staff and spectators.

Since then, many of the performers in Exhibit B lashed out at those who accused them of complicit racism. Actress Elexi Walker said: “It’s ridiculous to think I am being racist because I am involved in a piece that highlights the his tory of black people.” Chris Nekongo, another performer from Namibia, said: “In Namibia they are shocked to see that in a country like England this is happening. What happened in the past needs to be told in the present and the future.”

Brett Bailey with a performer from Exhibit B © Pascal Gely

Brett Bailey with a performer from Exhibit B © Pascal Gely

Clearly, the line must be drawn somewhere. Accusing someone of being racist has become all too easy these days… especially when there is a white man in the picture saying or doing something a black woman doesn’t like —  god forbid that white man is also South African. To then take it even further, accusing another black person of racism when he or she clearly is not, not only kills the messenger but it also burns the letter of good news he holds in his hand.

My grandfather always said: “Don’t allow your outrage to make an idiot of you.”

Institutionalised racism and complicit racism — if I understand the protesters argument — is in this case consenting Africans (black people) portraying an important (and often forgotten or ignored) part of their history through performance, art and storytelling — I’ll add to that: with the aim to educate, inform and stimulate a healthy debate and conversation…

And this should not be tolerated? In fact, it should be shut down. Silenced!

Using the same contorted argument, shouldn’t we then also ban films like Mississippi Burning, The Color Purple, 12 Years A Slave, Amistad, The Butler et al? While we’re at it, let’s burn books like The Book of Negro, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Beloved and The Astonishing Life Of Octavian Nothing… Hell yeah, why don’t we write all black people completely out of history? Or would that be a bit too extreme? Racist perhaps?

Adding to that, to say that an artist (or any person) is not allowed to have an opinion in a debate about race because of the colour of his or her skin — as was implied towards Bailey by Myers and her troops in their petition — is the most blatant and flagrant example of racial mud-slinging if there ever was one.

This is something many black people don’t get (and get angry about when it is called out): Racism cuts both ways — it impacts both sides of the fence — which is why everybody has a right to sit at the table — black, brown, yellow, white. We all have a part to play and should be allowed to join in the conversation… I ask myself (and Myers with her flag-waving politics): Would there have been such a massive outcry and a protest to demonise Brett Bailey’s work if he wasn’t white… and South African?

Brett Bailey 's "Exhibit B"

Brett Bailey ‘s “Exhibit B”

Personally (especially as a white South African male who is used to being shamed for the Apartheid atrocities of my grandfather’s generation), I fail to see how Exhibit B can be misinterpreted: As a multi-layered commentary, the twelve ‘snapshots’ collectively confront colonial racism committed in Africa, the cold horror of Apartheid, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of African immigrants and asylum seekers today.

It’s therefor not primarily just a work about colonial-era racial violence, abuse and exploitation but also (and possibly most importantly) an exposé of current racist and xenophobic policies in Europe — policies that have been shaped over centuries, starting long before the 19th century. The dehumanising stereotypes of otherness instilled in the consciousness of our ancestors have been transmitted subconsciously and insidiously through the ages… It’s a burden we all still carry today. Why sweep it under the carpet?

Exhibit B demands that we question these representations… and hopefully will make us gasp (especially us white folk) when we leave the installation and think: “Are these black performers not entertaining the audience here in the same way the did in Victorian human zoos?… Is it possible that in many ways nothing has changed?”

Exhibit B is about looking and being looked at. It’s about a mirror held up to our faces — black and white! It’s about embracing the past no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. It’s about enquiry, storytelling (truth-telling) and baring witness.

How is this a ‘bad’ thing?

By silencing this installation, it’s not just freedom of expression and free speech that takes a knock. Far more important and urgent voices are being drowned out too: Voices from the past lamenting the cold brutality of colonial slavery, voices in the present crying for help from where they are trapped in the grips of modern slavery and human trafficking (face it, most victims of these crimes are from race minorities), and voices from the future forewarning us that if we do not learn from the past by embracing it and take heed in the present nothing will change… tomorrow will not look any different from yesterday.

As far as I can see, there is no victory here because thanks to those blindsided protestors we are all still wearing our chains… be it of slavery or of a racist past… because we are still not allowed to talk about certain things.

Bret Bailey's "Exhibit B"

Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B”

Credits. Images: No Copyright Owned – All from different online media sources Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes

6 thoughts on “Exhibit B: A Racist Failure Or An Uncomfortable Truth

  1. I enjoyed reading this. It’s very honest and does not beat around the bush. You do realise though that some people will view what you say here as being racist? You are a white, male South African after all. I know that’s the point you are trying to make. I just wonder how beneficial it is for you.


    • Thanks for the comment Rob,

      I’m well-aware that people may think I’m a racist by default because of my background — that is after all the assumption Sara Myers and her angry mob made about Brett Bailey.

      However, I’m not ashamed of my background. As a child growing up in South Africa in the 70s & 80s, I had no hand in Apartheid… I remember questioning how black people were treated and I remember marching for equality and celebrating democracy when it finally happened. I am part of that history… unfortunately for her, it’s not the part Sara Myers wants to label me (and my peers) with.

      The difference is that I can tell my story as a white South African male without shame, talking about the good and the bad, unlike Sara Myers who wants to rewrite history for her children so that it portrays an unrealistic fairy-tale of Nubian princesses and African goddesses, denying them a part of the truth of where they come from — slavery… It is after all slavery (not Nubian Royalty) and ‘human zoos’ that brought the majority of black people to the continent.

      I wonder why she is still so ashamed of where she comes from?


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