London is the most exciting city in the world for art and culture. It’s a cosmopolitan urban sprawl, vibrantly multiracial, tolerant and with space for all kinds of art and ideas, coming from all corners of the world. This amazing city cherishes artistic freedom and free expression as key rights.
Or so I, and others, thought. Sadly, however, our vision of London was somewhat shattered this week, when it was reported that a performance art installation conceived and directed by the South African artist Brett Bailey was cancelled in response to loud protests by 200 people outside the venue in which it was being hosted.
Programmed by the Barbican Centre but due to be displayed in the atmospheric, dark spaces of the Waterloo Vaults, the soldout event Exhibit B was scheduled to run for five nights for a very limited audience. Only 750 people would have got the opportunity to see this promenade-style performance. An exploration of racial tensions, and specifically of the nineteenth-century phenomenon of ‘human zoos’ in which people of African descent would be put on display for European viewers, the installation featured black actors in chains and in cages.
Tiffany Jenkins’ review of the installation for spiked, from when it was hosted at the Edinburgh International Festival in August, captures very well what the work is like. I had a ticket for the 6:30pm slot at the Vaults this coming Saturday. But I have been denied my right to see the work, and I am angry about that. Fighting for freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of movement is a tough battle, usually involving coming into conflict with the authorities. But to find yourself fighting your fellow citizens, fellow Londoners, particularly sections of London’s African-Caribbean population, whose protesting at the Vaults successfully halted Exhibit B on the grounds that it is offensive — well, that is an even more difficult battle, which induces frustration and dismay.
How could sections of our city’s black citizens, and non-black citizens too, be whipped into a such frenzy of emotion over an artwork? Nearly 23,000 online petitioners, with the support of major trade unions, the National Union of Students’ Black Students’ Campaign and other black-interest groups, condemned Exhibit B. I was so appalled to see Unite the Union supporting the boycott of the installation that I have now cancelled my paid membership.