As the Barbican announce that they had been forced to shut down Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B on Tuesday, Editor Almass Badat explores the mixed feelings of shock, curiosity as well as positive critique around this controversial piece by talking to cast member Stella Odunlami and Matthew Xia, who saw the show on its opening night.
Since Exhibit B’s opening in Edinburgh, there has been a back and forth of the opposites on all platforms. The dispute has been publicised online in internet forums and you only have to visit the comment sections of arts news sites to see the split down the middle in this debate of race and history. It even stretched to a demonstration outside The Vaults in London’s Waterloo, where protestors blockaded the entrance to the first public night of the exhibition on Tuesday.
Playwright and Curator Brett Bailey arrived at the Barbican in the middle of the production’s tour, which started in April 2014 in South Africa’s Cape Town, and has since visited Brussels and France as well as a host of other worldwide locations. The work is based on the human zoos that crazed the West of the nineteenth century. Exhibit B collects letters, props and memoirs of the stories of the select characters, and as you walk past as a spectator of this freeze frame, the actors hold your gaze. This bizarre fascination with people of African origin was set up similar to the zoos of modern day – the subject would live and be fed behind bars, occasionally taught tricks and even dressed for the entertainment of the spectator. Replace the animals with humans and imagine people being made spectacles of, gawked at and even stripped of clothing in the name of scientific curiosity. One ubiquitous example is Sarah ‘Saartjie’ Baartman, the South African woman who was first exhibited in Great Britain for her ‘exotic’ features in 1810. Another more recent account is Ota Benga, who was displayed in New York’s Bronx Zoo in 1906, which startlingly wasn’t that long ago. There are many more instances from the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth century of similar recreations where people, removed from familiarity, were re-situated in mock reconstructions of their homes, instructed to carry out their lives in front of paying onlookers. As recently as 2012, disturbing ethnological expositions have been exposed in the Andaman Islands of India (you can watch the video here) and there is no doubt that similar practises still occur. Such exploitations are said to be the cause of the invention of the savage, as well as a key beginning to racial superiority.
Considering the weight of colonialism and the above just scratching the surface of human zoos and slavery, the protestor’s voices are heard. Many feel as though there is no progression, and Exhibit B is in fact just a repetition of the past. Others simply feel ridiculed and hurt, and reactions to slave and racial tension in film, theatre, music and art that aim to shock have always been a topic of controversy and interpretation. Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Twelve Years A Slave boldly addresses the complexities, relationships and experiences of Solomon Northup, a once free black man kidnapped into slavery and submission. The harrowing scenes of rape, hangings and violence are difficult to watch, yet necessary in understanding the brutality of what has shaped society today. Nas Abraham, a visual artist from London says, “slavery is a deep rooted issue in modern black culture. It extends beyond hate-filled reminiscence, and it has not been abolished. We are only just on the verge of breaking free from the horrendous effects of Willy Lynch’s three hundred year control methods, which is sad to know.”
Yet the exhibition has also received critical acclaim and commendation for its “haunting installation” set out to “subvert a disturbing phenomenon, turning the notion of exotic spectacle on its head”. Exhibit B defiantly recreates the ethos of the human zoo while addressing “deportation centres, racial profiling and reduction of people to numbers,” and ruffles many feathers while doing so – the petition is clear. “If Brett Bailey is trying to make a point about slavery this is not the way to do it”, says Sara Myers, the petition organiser. “The irony gets lost and it’s not long before the people behind the cage begin to feel like animals trapped in a zoo“. And what of those performers? Speaking to one of the cast members of Exhibit B Stella Odunlami, there is still work to be done. “Brett Bailey may be white, but he is African!”, she tells GloTIME. “He may have experienced apartheid from a position of privilege but that should not exclude him from voicing his thoughts on what is part of our world history. It is important that we acknowledge both the role of the oppressed and the oppressor throughout history so that we can better understand our lives today.”
The protestors have silenced this production in London, so many will not be able to form first hand opinions on Bailey’s work, who’s intention is already unclear. Matthew Xia, the Associate Artistic Director of the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre experienced the first night of the show. “People keep asking me if I now feel educated,” he explains. “Of course not. That’s rarely a component of an artistic experience. I felt and thought in a way I hadn’t before, about things I haven’t before. Great art – the best art, should change the spectator and the deeper and more profound that change is, the more effective the art has been. I was profoundly changed. The content was shocking, but it consisted of images I had seen before. My own work deals with the marginalised and ‘the other’, and therefore I have taken myself to some dark places in human history to try to understand how and why this happens and what the repercussions of a world shaped like this means to me as an artist and as a mixed race man in the UK and Europe. These images become hugely effective when the ‘subject’ is staring back at you, judging you, holding you, asking you silent questions and reaching out to you. I felt like I was the one being observed. Within their silence is power. They climb through your eyes, into your soul, and sit there with you”.
As time moves further away from colonialism, are we stifling knowledge that is already rarely visited? “I believe that silencing the production of Exhibit B sets a dangerous precedent,” Odunlami says. “If we limit who can and can’t engage in discussion and provocations around the ideas of race we risk only ever engaging with one side of a very multi faceted debate. Theatre when it’s good holds up a mirror to society and forces us to question us where we stand within it all”. This view is echoed by Xia. “Freedom of expression shouldn’t be compromised. It is a huge wake up call to the British arts institutions that without proportionate representation we run the risk of shows becoming flash points for frustration and a wider concern about stories, and who has the license to tell them. It also means that the louder you shout the more chance you have of winning against intelligent, well thought out and articulated arguments. It means that the artist must now, according to the protest, be directed by the wider community in his or her response to the world and must only tackle subjects in a way approved by committee. It means we don’t get to have a nuanced discussion”.
As we stand at the end of a week that began fuelled with debate, one asks how to move forward. “I really don’t know”, Xia says. “It now feels that there are two very strong factions with regard to this, those who feel vindicated by the withdrawal of the show, and those who were interested in the work and feel that they should have had the right to form their own opinion after having seen it. It would be nice if some good comes of this, even if it is just the beginning of conversations about inclusivity and empowerment of artists in a post-colonial society”.