Exhibit B: a guilty pleasure

Brett Bailey’s new show isn't racist; it just makes you feel bad.

Tiffany Jenkins

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At the entrance to Exhibit B is a sign warning audiences the performance art they’re about to see contains nudity. It somewhat misses the point: this is a show that confronts slavery, colonialism and present-day racism by placing black actors in several tableaux vivants (living pictures). Nudity is hardly the most pressing issue the piece forces us to address.

Exhibit B has been compared to the nineteenth-century practice of displaying black people in zoos for European audiences. The artist behind the show, Brett Bailey, has explained Exhibit B as being about objectification: ‘What interests me about human zoos is the way people were objectified. Once you objectify people, you can do the most terrible things to them.’

I saw Exhibit B at the Edinburgh International Festival, where the Playfair Library Hall, with its grand, white corniced ceilings and portraits of famous white men, provided the perfect stage. The first scene you encounter consists of a male and a topless female, exhibited as if they are artefacts – a shocking arrangement recreated from a natural-history museum exhibit from the twentieth century. Further along, a young woman sits before a mirror on an iron bed, chained by the neck, her bare back exposed to us. All of these scenes are accompanied by labels with statistics such as the age, height, sex and place of origin of the people. At the end of the hall are a group of disembodied heads – four performers from Namibia – singing the most beautiful songs. Indeed, with its careful attention to detail, the elaborate historical clothing and spot-lighting, and the actors, there is a great deal of beauty in Exhibit B – something which jars with the horror depicted.

It is a provocative work, and it is now the subject of a petition demanding that all future performances are cancelled. The Barbican in London plans to show Exhibit B at the end of September but, as I write, 12,801 people have signed a statement calling for it to be withdrawn. The petitioners describe the Barbican’s involvement as ‘an outrageous act of complicit racism’ because the show is an ‘exercise in white racial privilege’.

Are the petitioners right? Is Exhibit B a racist work? And should it be banned? I would never call for an artwork to be withdrawn or banned, so let me move to the campaigners’ criticisms: do the petitioners have a point about Exhibit B being racist? If anything, Exhibit B is confused about racism, but that’s often the nature of an artwork. After all, it’s not a book or a lecture. What’s interesting is that not only is the piece confused about racism, so are the petitioners.

One of the campaigners’ concerns is that Exhibit B has been created by a white man – the artist Brett Bailey – who they then call a ‘racist’. Exhibit B is, they say, an ‘exercise in white privilege’. But this is a really sad approach to art and to understanding how we relate to one another. The ethnicity of the artist should not be taken as determining the meaning of the work. Why would it be different if he was black? We as human beings do not have to be something, or to have experienced something, to be able to understand it and to empathise – this is the basis for most art, especially literature. It is also the basis for solidarity, for joining together to fight racism and inequality.

Exhibit B is unnerving and provoking. It is well-researched and it is artfully staged. There are problems with it, but these are not, as the petitioners argue, to do with racism.

When Brett Bailey documents the materials of which his installations are made, he lists ‘spectator/s’. This is because the work is about our engagement. The black performers look us in the eye as we look up at them on the pedestals and, in one case, in a cage. That the actors look you in the eye is designed to make you feel uncomfortable, and most critics have described this interaction as a devastating experience – which it is.

But it’s this attempt to make the audiences feel uncomfortable, a feature of so many art works today, that makes me uneasy. It reminds me of the play, Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, which was also shown at this years’ Edinburgh International Festival, which tells the story of Hindu god Ganesh travelling to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika. It is a brilliant idea and an interesting subject superbly performed by actors with learning disabilities.

Early on in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, the actors remove their costumes and ask: ‘Do we have the right to perform this?’ They are not Jewish, they are not Hindu, so what right, they ask, do they have to tell this story? At one point, one of the actors turns to the audience and shouts: ‘You’ve come to see some freak porn.’

There is nothing wrong with examining one’s motives, to probe and to ask why we are interested in certain stories. But there seems to be a vogue for accusing the audience of being complicit in something wrong. In Exhibit B, by focusing on the audience experience of the different horrendous scenes, it is as if you are a participant in them. Likewise, in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, the implication is that you, the audience, want to get your rocks off, even if in a well-intentioned manner, by watching disabled people perform. The suggestion in both works is that our experience echoes what has happened in history: we are objectifying and exploiting others. This is not an explicit accusation, but I think it is impossible not to make comparisons between our seeing these performances today and the racism of the past. And I think that diminishes an understanding of slavery, colonialism and Nazi Germany.

Exhibit B and Ganesh seem to be more about ‘me’ or ‘us’ than what they purport to be about. This makes for effective theatre – both are disturbing – but it also reduces the works to being about how we feel, rather than addressing how things are. The finger-pointing prevents the two productions from engaging with history and present-day problems, which both are ostensibly performed to address.

Compare Exhibit B, for example, to the film 12 Years a Slave. In the latter, we learn something of what it was like to be a slave and even a slave owner. It gives us a glimpse into what happened and what it was like. Art isn’t meant to be a history lesson, of course, but it also isn’t necessarily about how we emotionally react to something; Exhibit B and Ganesh Verus the Third Reich mainly provoke feelings of guilt. While this is not necessarily wrong, it is self-indulgent. Slavery, colonialism and the Holocaust were about a little bit more than how bad we feel about them.

It is a lesson in historical illiteracy to label Bailey racist, as the petitioners do. His art work is not to be identified with the social system of colonialism and slavery. The actors are consenting adults; they are not slaves. But this elision between the racism of the past and a challenging play in the present is easy to make now that racism has come to be understood as something defined subjectively, rather than understood as a structural system of inequality based on colour. The irony is, of course, that Exhibit B partly encourages this blurring and therefore encourages these accusations. The petitioners make the same mistake by treating Exhibit B like a human zoo of the past.

To be fair, Exhibit B doesn’t concentrate solely on history. It includes a number of recent asylum seekers in the tableaux vivant, in particular, an Angolan man who died in British custody during a forced deportation in 2010. What is lamentable is that none of the petitioners say anything about the way asylum seekers are treated today, and focus instead on the scenes from the Victorian Age, and of course their own reactions.

The real problem with these battles over what should and should not be on display is that they ignore what is actually happening in the world today.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist and author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit Tiffany’s website here.

Exhibit B is at the Barbican from 23-27 September.

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