‘Exhibit B’ At The Barbican – An Intervention Synonymous with Tyranny

Last weekend, Exhibit B, a performance set to be staged by the Barbican in East London, was brutally and deplorably shut down before its opening night. The installation, previously presented in twelve cities, provides a critique of the “human zoos” and ethnographic displays that exhibited Africans as objects of scientific discovery during the 19th and 20th centuries. Conceived and directed by white South African Brett Bailey, the protestors, led by journalist and rights activist Sara Mayers, left the Barbican with no choice but to close its gates and relinquish to the protesting crowd. Protestors claimed the performance to be an “exhibition of white privilege”, depicting Bailey’s scenes that sought to humanise the sufferings of the Atlantic Slave Trade as “complicit racism”, labeling it a “degrading and offensive performance”.

Barbican exhibit B

A Human Exhibit: Ota Benga at Bronx Zoo circa 1906.

Controversial, yes, but offensive and racist, no. The motionless performances of Exhibit B collectively confront the colonial atrocities committed, in no way accepting nor approving, but critiquing and educating. The scenes portrayed in Bailey’s installation are real events in the history of humanity, and the boycott of the exhibition is just one example of many that illicitly conceals both Britain’s colonial past and the subsequent suffering experienced by the African population.

This attempt to silence artists, performers and most importantly, history, is a worrying precedent. Sara Mayers stated that Exhibit B is a “step back” for racial rights, expressing that she wants “her children to grow up in a world where the barbaric things that happened to their ancestors are a thing of the past.” What a truly ignorant and deluded statement that is; it speaks volumes of her regard for not only the history of her ancestors, but also the history of her country. We cannot lose the atrocities of colonial history from our past; they must be remembered so the cycle is not repeated.

Yes, the traumatic events depicted in the scenes of Exhibit B remain a traumatic legacy for many of South Asian, Caribbean and African descent. The silencing of the arts that this protest demonstrates, however, indicates that forces replicating Lord Chamberlain’s theatre censorship act of 1737 can play a significant role in British theatre in the 21st century, despite the usual freedom of expression, a beheld liberty in the UK. Protests against controversial arts performances, their ensuing cancellation, and the consequential silencing of expression that is synonymous with this event, places this decision in the hands of a minority; otherwise known as Tyranny. Deriding artists and actors of a voice, not only perturbs the foundations of British ideals, but as, David Aaronovitch a British author and journalist says, “renders us all in chains”.

In our democratic society, the arts should spark controversy and debate; Bailey’s success at rousing emotion concerning his installation exemplifies the power of his performance, and is illustrative in itself that Exhibit B should have endured its protestors. Although the exhibition would linger in the minds of many, its purpose was to educate viewers about the brutality of European colonialism, which is often left out of literature, national curriculums and textbooks. We cannot capitulate to the conspiracy of silence that has existed for far too long, only to hide our demeanor and shame. Denial will only hinder progress; acceptance of our racial history is the key to advancement.

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About the author

Charlotte Dowd

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A recent History graduate from the University of Leeds. Interested in human rights and the impact of colonialism, both overseas and in 20th century Britain, attempting to recover the Subaltern voice. Currently involved in a love-affair with cereal.