“Exhibit B”, an art show featuring black actors in cages which was cancelled by London’s famed Barbican Centre in September is set to open in teh French capital later this month sparking furious protests. The controversial work, created by white South African artist Brett Bailey, is supposed to be a thought-provoking look at the 19th-and 20th-century practice of exhibiting people from the colonies in human zoos for public amusement.
The exhibition is due to open at the Theatre Gerard Philipe at Saint Denis, and the Centquatre cultural centre in northern Paris at the end of November. Both venues are in areas with high non-white populations.
Bailey insists “Exhibit B” aims to improve awareness of the racism of Europe’s colonial past, while challenging viewers to question their role as voyeurs in contemporary human tragedies (one of the “tableaux” features a modern-day asylum seeker bound to an aeroplane seat with gaffer tape).
But not everyone agrees.
A petition has been launched in Paris – mirroring a successful appeal in the UK – for the exhibition to be cancelled on the grounds that it is just as racist as the colonial-era human zoos it purports to condemn.
“The idea that a human zoo of this type … can be used as a vehicle to reduce racism is ridiculous,” petition organisers – “Contre Exhibit B” – wrote on appeals website change.org.
“This exhibition is an insult to the people living in the areas where the exhibition is to be shown who are forced to confront and understand racism on a daily basis.
“Freedom of expression is not a good enough justification for our cultural centres to put on this kind of horror show.”
Storm of protest
‘Exhibit B’ was shown in France in 2013 (at the Centquatre and the Avignon Festival), and again at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland in the summer of 2014, without any controversy.
When London’s Barbican announced it would run ‘Exhibit B’, it faced such a storm of protest and an online campaign that gained some 25,000 signatures that eventually convinced the Barbican to cancel the show.
Writing in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Birmingham City University sociology lecturer Dr Kehinde Andrews called ‘Exhibit B’ an example “of “art” that “offends, that crosses the line into racial exploitation and abuse, creating a grotesque parody of suffering played out by voiceless black cadavers”.
“If you pay to see it you are colluding in the worst kind of racial abuse; that which is done in the pretence (or worse, the belief) that it is progressive.”