Barbican controversy

Issue section: 
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I agree with Hassan Mahamdallie’s article on the Exhibit B controversy (November SR). When protesters organised a petition and picketed an artwork they felt was racist and won their demands they shouldn’t have been dismissed as a “mob” and it is not the same as censorship. What’s the point of protesting if you don’t hope to win?

I also don’t believe that the artist is a racist or that the artwork was produced with racist intent. The black artists who chose to take part in the piece didn’t think so either.

But we can critique the way people are represented in art. The installation showed black people in chains in a recreation of the “human zoos” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the artists involved were encouraged to write about their reasons for taking part and have their writings displayed at the end of the exhibit, they also had to sit still and be silent and let people watch them.

This represents black people as if they were merely passive victims of slavery and colonial oppression. It’s similar to the way Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln showed the white saviours but almost completely ignored the role of black people in fighting for their own emancipation.

Socialist Review rightly criticised the Spielberg film for that. There was resistance to the British Empire throughout its history. And a revolution ended slavery in what became Haiti, an event that has inspired generations of artists, musicians and filmmakers. Why doesn’t the Barbican celebrate some of that history?