The Exhibit B controversy

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Exhibit B, a walk-through art installation featuring black performers and looking at the themes of “racism, ‘othering’ and the colonial history of Europe in Africa”, was due to have a short run in London mounted by the Barbican arts centre. It was cancelled at the end of September amid a storm of protest.

Journalist Sara Myers and other activists including Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote and London black rights campaigner Lee Jasper had led a campaign against the installation, including an online petition attracting nearly 23,000 signatures. It culminated in a mass picket outside the venue. At that point the Barbican cancelled the run, saying, “We find it profoundly troubling that such methods have been used to silence artists and performers and that audiences have been denied the opportunity to see this important work.”

Now that the dust has settled it is worth unpicking the protest and the Barbican’s response.

First, the protesters had the right to protest against Exhibit B, which they considered to be reinforcing racism by showing living tableaux of black people in chains and other such images. A protest against a work of art shouldn’t automatically be accused of censorship. Art is at heart a dialogue between the artist or performer and society. As such each protest should be judged on its own merits. So did the protesters have a legitimate argument that Exhibit B was a racist piece of art or gave succour to racism?

Exhibit B was clearly intended as a critique of historical and contemporary oppression based on race, class and gender. But it was also clearly meant to be provocative and evoke strong reactions. I don’t believe that Brett Bailey, who created the piece, is a racist. Nor do I believe that Bailey’s background as a white South African man disqualified him from venturing onto such territory. Given the political history of interracial struggle against apartheid, that would be a ridiculous position to take.

Is Exhibit B, which has been shown in different countries, including South Africa, an effective piece of art? Does it succeed in confronting the viewers’ possible prejudices, or subverting the brutal imagery it presents? I do not know, not having seen the work.
However, I am certain that the Barbican badly mishandled the criticisms of Exhibit B and succeeded only in polarising the debate even further. Myers’ original change.org petition, whether you consider it right or wrong, was framed in reasoned tones.

But as soon as the campaign began to roll, the Barbican, instead of properly explaining the piece and entering into a dialogue with Myers et al, simply told the protesters it was a progressive piece of work, and that the critics had given it five stars at Edinburgh. In other words, the protesters couldn’t appreciate great art. The Barbican then accused the protesters of censorship, encouraging the media to paint them as “a violent mob”. We used to have censorship in this country — up until 1968 all theatre scripts had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain, and he had the power to censor them or refuse them a licence to perform.

The protesters had no such equivalent power. Exhibit B was not censored by the protesters; it was withdrawn by the Barbican. Neither were the protests violent — unless, of course, you think that a group of mostly black people protesting is automatically aggressive.

The Barbican put itself and Bailey in an absurd position — they were faced with using the police to usher the audience past a majority black picket line to be “challenged” by an installation “about racism and the historical roots of prejudices”. And here lies the deeper dynamic at play in the dispute over Exhibit B. Despite years of trying to convince our capital’s major arts institutions to diversify and reflect and engage with the society outside their doors, many remain stubbornly elitist in their programming, the artists they employ, their staffing (particularly the decision makers and boards) and the material they choose to invest in.

The most telling commentary on the row was from an unexpected source — Index on Censorship. IoC’s Julia Farrington has argued that the Barbican “failed the artist and the audience. The work is now not going to be shown, so their very vocal support for Exhibit B is totally compromised. And, by being taken by surprise at the hostile response to the work, they have acted defensively, instead of proactively opening up dialogue with black artists and audience at the earliest stage of considering putting on this work.”

She continues that the Barbican must now engage with the thousands who signed the petition and lead a discussion on institutional inequality in the arts.

For me, Farrington hits the nail on the head when she writes, “Surely it cannot be possible for the Barbican to stand by a work that purports to confront ‘colonial atrocities committed in Africa, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of immigrants today’ and not see that it is holding up a mirror to itself.”

Hassan Mahamdallie is a playwright, co-director of the Muslim Institute and on the editorial board of the journal Critical Muslim.