by Jesse Bernard

I’m sure like myself, those of you who are against Exhibit B were happy to learn that further shows at the The Barbican Centre have been cancelled, as of Tuesday ‘after a huge, short sharp and a dynamic campaign. Unfortunately, the media coverage of the cancellation indicates that much work is still to be done. Theatre critic Lyn Gardner praised the ‘art’ for reminding us that “Britain’s 21st century ways of seeing are still strongly skewed by….colonial attitudes.” Granted, it is important to expose Britain’s dark colonial past but as Dr Robbie Shililam asks ‘who is setting the agenda for whose healing at whose cost?’

Artist and performer Selina Thompson who saw the exhibition in Edinburgh intimates that it is at ours ‘Seeing black people, seeing African people – presented as bodies, rather than people: this is nothing new. Seeing those Black Bodies suffering, presented in unbearable pain and terror, this is NOTHING NEW. Black women as sex objects waiting to be raped, as anatomical specimens to be examined, as Mammys, as animals, seeing black men disembodied or presented as violent and frightening, in cages, with their bodies maimed, or without bodies at all, as four disembodied heads sing at the bottom of the exhibition – a mournful lament, of course, so that the whole space reeks of pity and shame and grief – Seeing black history presented as though it began and will end with Colonialism – i.e. when white people come into the picture, is NOTHING NEW. It is not radical, it does not challenge me – actually, it doesn’t challenge anyone really, because it feeds into a cultural narrative that is all too common. One in which pain and persecution is the only way in which we can understand the experience of blackness, one in which we fetishize the black experience as abject’. ~ Exhibit B

human-zooIn announcing the cancellation of the ‘Exhibition’ The Barbican released a hollow sounding statement which said “It became impossible for us to continue with the show because of the extreme nature of the protest and the serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff.” They failed to acknowledge why the protesters were aggrieved and branded the protests as ‘non-peaceful’, which I’m sure those that were protesting would disagree with.
Such coded language is also being disseminated online by supporters of the exhibition who have described the protests as ‘threatening and aggressive’ which are phrases that have long been used to homogenise and dehumanise people of African descent.

The Barbican also urged members of the public to consider the ramifications of “the silencing of artists and performers has on freedom of expression.” Freedom of expression is a liberty that should be cherished but you only have to go back as far as January, when Bjarne Melgaard’s ‘racist chair’ came to light, to understand that not all expression or indeed intent has positive effect on the communities it purports to support.

In Brett Bailey’s piece in The Guardian yesterday he expressed his disappointment at the exhibition being cancelled. “It has not been my intention to alienate people with this work. To challenge perceptions and histories, yes.” Bailey appears to miss the point. He fails to understand that whilst art is intended to be seen and heard, a crucial aspect is how it is interpreted by its audience and where the power lies. Bailey went on to add “Exhibit B has been lauded by white, black and brown audiences and critics for the powerful stance it takes against racism, the dehumanisation and objectification of black people, and the sanitisation of the brutalities of European colonialism.” It appears that the inclusion of critics from various creeds was used to appease readers and vilify those who protested. The United Kingdom is in dire need of embracing its history but there are other alternatives to the one Bailey proposed such as Matilda Ibini’s play Muscovado opening next month about the British involvement in the slave trade.

What we have now is an opportunity to educate Britons about the role Africa played in shaping the world, prior and post slavery. With Black History Month on the horizon, the emphasis should not only be on the darkest aspects of our history but on that which has been swept under the carpet. The school curriculum a.k.a The (white) British History Project lacks any teachings of the role griots played in African societies, the Nubian empires or the astronomers of East Africa. The ancient civilizations of Africa influenced much of the Western world today but it is a history that hasn’t been communicated. There is a beautiful exhibition called ‘Black Chronicles II’ which showcases members of The African Choir who toured Britain between 1891-1893, dispelling the myth that the free black experience in Britain began with the arrival of the Empire Windrush.

It is our right to tell the world that our history is rich and did not begin the moment slavery was abolished.

In light of the entire situation, it seems evident that those who were in support of the ‘human zoo’ lacked any real empathy or understanding of the legacy of colonial violence and the appropriate way to acknowledge this. Had they done so, they would have understood that there were many other ways for this dark history to be depicted and that this was not one of them. The Barbican Centre also stated they were unaware of whom the black community was. To that I say, you can find The Black Cultural Archives in Windrush Square in Brixton, you too Brett.

For further ideas on how to educate read No Alibis – Educating Children About Racism
See our current call for submissions ‘Putting Black Artists Centre Stage’ (closing 1st Oct)


Jesse Bernard is a freelance community manager and writer based in London. He writes about a variety of social issues from feminism, race to mental health and education. He is the editor of Marvin’s Corridor and is currently writing his first novel which touches on depression, domestic abuse and self expression. Jesse has carried out an empirical study assessing the affects hypermasculinity has on men. Find him on twitter @MarvinsCorridor


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