Thursday, September 25, 2014

Exhibit B: a response to the closure

An Image from Exhibit B
It's a tense and troubled time for those of us involved in intercultural performance.  On Monday, I was invited to attend a public meeting at Stratford Circus to discuss the controversy over Brett Bailey's piece Exhibit B, opening the next night at the Vaults.  I replied by saying that I was more than willing to join the debate, but I'd rather do so after seeing the production for myself, which was due to happen tonight.  Now that the protests have brought about the production's closure, it seems I won't get the opportunity.  This means that anything I say about this work is based on conjecture and surmise rather than on experience and critical engagement.  That much at least I have in common with the protestors who shut down the work: most of them have not seen it either.

I do, however, have some knowledge of Brett Bailey as an artist, and of the company he leads - Third World Bunfight.  I saw their production of Big Dada (dealing, comically and disturbingly, with Idi Amin), and the truly astonishing celebration of spirituality and anarchy that was iMumbo Jumbo.  I have read the other plays and commentaries in Bailey's book, The Plays of Miracle and Wonder.  Only last week, I saw his stunning re-imagining of Verdi's Macbeth at the Barbican - a production which uses two icons of European culture (Shakespeare and opera) to address the ongoing neo-colonial incursions into Africa, and to represent the horrific conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo as the direct result of imperial history and current Western rapacity.  In this Macbeth, the witches are the forces of international capital, offering material rewards to the nascent dictator in return for purchase on the natural wealth of the land - above all the coltan used in phones and computers.  I have spent valuable and productive time in the company of Brett Bailey, and that of Abey Xakwe (a frequent leading performer with Bunfight), discussing these productions in relation to the wider cultural and political discourse.  We've talked about my own work too.  We've swapped the occasional email.  We don't know each other well - but I recognise a fellow traveller on the rocky road of a politically and spiritually engaged intercultural theatre when I see one.  So, whatever else might be said about Exhibit B (and, as I say, I haven't seen it) - it will have been a considered and serious piece of work.  It will most certainly not have been the sensationalist and self-promoting circus that its detractors have portrayed.

Exhibit B
We have to acknowledge that the anger is real.  Its main focus seems to be on the fact that the production draws off the history of the 19th century "human zoos", where black African people were shown to Europeans as sub-human curiosities.  As I understand it, the piece develops that idea into the present day, with figures like asylum seekers being similarly framed.  It sounds to me like a powerful and striking way to undercut the prevailing media discourse around such people, and around the gaze of the dominant culture.  "Look", it would seem to say: "the human zoo still exists.  This is how Africa is treated in our own time."  If that is its meaning, then it would seem to be the very opposite of racist.

But the detractors suggest that the presentation of such images, even in an artistic context, is inherently racist.  Their argument seems to be that representing the human zoo is equivalent to being the human zoo.  And that is deeply problematic.  Because if we are to equate the artistic representation of something with its actuality, then we are not able to deal with anything in art beyond flowers and teddy bears.  I don't honestly think that the people who oppose Exhibit B believe this.  The controversy has tended to couple their reaction to the "human zoo" with the fact that Brett Bailey is a white South African - and I suspect that this may be the more important strand.  Who represents?  Who has the right to represent?  Who is being addressed in that representation?  These seem to me to be the underlying issues.  Perhaps what is genuinely discomforting about Exhibit B is that the perceived hierarchy of white director and black performers could be seen to perpetuate racial hierarchies and divisions - particularly if the audience is also predominantly white (and, at Macbeth last week, it was).  After all, Twelve Years a Slave was very graphic in its representation of slavery and racial violence, but nobody called for the film to be banned.  But this was the work of a black director.  There's a good (and by no means uncritical) essay about this aspect of Bailey's exhibits by Nathanael M. Vlachos - click here.  A key point that Vlachos makes is that the black performers look out of the tableaux at the audience with great intensity, deliberately inverting and subverting the conventional gaze.  It is the white spectator who is "on view" and made the object of scrutiny in this work.

I acknowledge the problem of "the white director".  Indeed, I live with it on a daily basis.  I accept that the horrors of colonial history and the neo-colonial present will have a different emotional impact on those people whose ancestors were slaves from those whose ancestors were slave-owners.  But that does not mean that only black people can talk about this.  Indeed, I would argue that it makes it essential that everybody talks about it, and that the conversation is had between races and cultures, so as to find a way of dealing with this divisive history and jointly exploring a way to move forward.  To bar any one group of artists from engaging with such subjects on the grounds of their ethnic origin seems to me far more problematic than anything they might or might not say.

While I, and the rest of the London audience, have been denied the opportunity to see this work and engage with it directly, I do know a number of people who saw it in Edinburgh.  Lyn Gardner's response is worth a look...  So is Amy Bonsall's.  Dione Joseph, who critiques performance from a non-white perspective, was disturbed by the piece, and particularly by the element of silence.  She did not like the fact that nobody spoke - either performers or audience.  Not having experienced it, I'm unsure: the silence might perhaps give a sense of black performers and critical audiences being silenced - it might equally create a powerful metaphor of oppression and a space for deep personal contemplation, even for mourning.  What I can say with certainty is this: that on this occasion, the voices that shout loudest have been allowed to triumph, and have silenced both artistic expression and critical response.  It suggests that, in a world dominated by the media clamour, there is no space for that silence that is far more profound than noise.


Aleasha said...

We've been having a discussion about it on an email group I belong to. As someone (one of the few it seems) who has seen the show I offer this commentary. It's copied from the discussion so apologies if you have seen it before.
I seem to be one of the few people who have seen this exhibition. I think that the experience of the participants is not relevant to the argument for or against the work. Being able to put yourself in the place of oppressed people, to understand what they went through from their perspective (within the zoo) would, I imagine, be a deeply empathetic experience. Life changing I expect. However, as a viewer of this work that is not the perspective we are offered. They stand, many semi-naked, silently accusing us the audience of...what? Collusion, ignorance, apathy? It's not clear, only that we are supposed to feel bad about looking at them even though that is all we are permitted to do (the audience is instructed on entry to the gallery that there is to be no speaking).
At first I was so angered by the Exhibition that I vociferously told friends to cancel their tickets so as not to glorify what I considered to be an offensive work. Then, once my thoughts had settled, I apologised for that and advised the opposite. I don't believe that the arts should be censored and I do believe that the artist is sincere in his intention to enlighten us to the horrors of a particular age. However, where the art falls down is that it only succeeds in reinflicting the trauma of silencing on another generation. Several of the exhibits are current asylum seekers, a highly marginalised group who are routinely silenced and detained in modern-day concentration camps without having committed crimes. To present these people without empowering them to speak is, for me, difficult to forgive and shows that Mr Bailey doesn't really understand the mechanisms of oppression.
As a black person, indeed as a British person I find it hard to believe that anything contained within this exhibition will surprise anyone. We all know about the horrors of slavery. In fact when many people think of Africa that is perhaps all they think about along with poverty, starvation, war and government corruption. The areas where we lack knowledge are African literature, art, and wider culture. (I only read my first book of African Myths in 2009 and am yet to read a modern African novel!!!!). I think that this Exhibition falls down in that it posits the black African body as proto-victim. As if that is all a naked African can represent - a kind of original slavery.

Aleasha said...

What the exhibition could have done is talk about the large number of people enslaved and objectified today. Workers from Nepal and India who are trapped in Qatar building the World Cup Stadium. Their passports are held by their employer and they require an exit visa signed by their employer to leave the country. To date even the Qatari government admits that 1000 of these workers have died since the start of the project and this was in May ( Or the unknown number of white women from eastern Europe trafficked into Britain's sex industry. If we are going to feel bad about any kind of slavery how about the one we can do something about!.
It's not that I don't care at all about the participants in Exhibit B. I just think their opinion is irrelevant to the arguments against the works. Doesn't it count as irony that though their voices are thought to be so important in justifying the work their presence is not central to it since though the exhibition moves around the world the performers are almost completely changed every time it moves city. If their perspective were so important would that be the case?

What distresses me is how divisive this work has become. I grew up black in a multicultural Britain. My friends were mostly white because of where I lived and my family is mixed (white, mixed race, black, pakistani). Most of the voices condemning the work are people of African origin, most of those lauding it as a "need to see" experience are white. I think the last thing we need at this moment in time is this kind of polarisation.
The truth from my perspective as a black person is that it hurts to see an exhibition like that in my own country. Mostly because the response to it makes me feel as though my neighbours don't and won't understand why I should feel hurt by it and I can't understand why that is. If the message of the exhibition is communicated effectively, it puts an image representing me into a position I don't wish to be in, a position, I fight against on my own behalf and on behalf of others as often as I can. Why aren't we understanding each other? There was a protest a while ago by the national congress of American Indians against the naming of sports teams like the Washington Red Skins. They recontextualised it very well here and I understood where they were coming from (see the link
My family is Jamaican so you don't go back far to find slaves and their owners in my ancestry - (that's where my Scots blood comes from) if I were to represent at what happened to my ancestors I would never honour their memory by putting them back in the zoo!
I believe that the effect for an audience was profound. It was meant to be, but I come from a theatre background and know that making people feel something is only the first step in making work that means something. The other side of the proto-victimhood assigned to people of colour is the proto-aggressor, the originator of the crime of oppression which is then given to anyone white. 'That is just as oppressive and just as possibly dangerous for all of us as the victim role assigned to people of colour. I think that it was this kind of guilt that left young children (mostly girls) in Rotherham vulnerable to the groups of Pakistani men who groomed and then abused them.