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Racism and public protest at The Barbican

ByMaddy Churchhouse

Oct 7, 2014

Exhibit B: a satirical human zoo featuring caged, chained and mutilated actors in scenes of silent and unmoving degradation. Intended to draw attention to black oppression, this art installation of Brett Bailey was closed last week by its hosting gallery, the Barbican, in response to a picket line of two hundred protesters and a one-thousand strong petition arguing that it furthered rather than challenged racist attitudes. Both news sources and the Barbican itself are complaining that the protesters missed the point. However, while the issue of Exhibit B’s racism itself is not clear cut, the positive example of successful peaceful public intervention is.

Featuring scenes of torture, imprisonment and sexual slavery, Exhibit B is both harrowing and horrifying. This is of course Bailey’s intention, yet prominent protester Simon Woolley points out that while Exhibit B “induces white guilt, it does nothing to promote black empowerment.” As a white Afrikaner who grew up comfortably in the Apartheid regime, Brady arguably has a unique perspective on racism; however, his past also lends connotations of imperialism to Exhibit B.  As the satire of the exhibit was entirely implied there was nothing to prevent a particularly twisted audience from actually enjoying the fetishisation of slavery.

If Bailey’s motives are pure then he could have challenged racism more progressively, for example by lending the actors he employed active rather than entirely passive roles. Approaching the topic of race from a more sensitive angle would certainly have been the more artistically difficult, and arguably braver option. As it stood, the gratuitous depravity of Exhibit B suggests that neither Bailey nor the Barbican had given much consideration to black audiences of the installation. It is convenient to claim a veneer of progressivism while simultaneously staging an exhibition with such blatant shock and media value; while art should be challenging, both gallery and artist ought to have noticed how Exhibit B rather oversteps this mark.

Despite complaints to the contrary, artistic freedom of expression does equate to a license to be wantonly insensitive. Galleries have the right to stage any exhibition they choose, but it is unnecessary and distasteful to promote artwork which does more to harm than promote equality. When the thorny issue of which category Exhibit B falls into began to cause protest, the choice whether or not to respond fell upon the Barbican. Perhaps the most progressive aspect of the entire situation is that they did.

Unfortunately, the Barbican has since made it clear that they did so not out of honest respect but because they felt the situation had become too unpredictable. This is offensive to the protesters themselves, who were both peaceful and entirely legal in their actions. In fact it was not even their intent to silence Bailey’s artistic creation, simply to make public their disapproval. It is the Barbican itself which chose, unnecessarily, to close Exhibit B entirely. This was neither some act of censorship by the establishment, nor a case of an angry mob oppressing a voice of dissension. This was simply a peaceful protest by local activists against something which overstepped the values of their community; a peaceful protest which met, however bizarrely, with an unexpected success.

There is therefore one undeniably positive outcome of this awkward situation. Art is intended first and foremost to be interpreted by its audience, and in this case when the audience spoke they actually had their views acknowledged. Therefore whatever our personal interpretations of Exhibit B, we should be gratified that it has demonstrated the power of peaceful, democratic action to affect societal issues.

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