Exhibit B

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23 responses »

  1. Here is my open letter to EIF. Sadly…not a response!

    My name is Mara Menzies and I would like to express my extreme disappointment at EIF’s decision to host the incredibly insensitive and highly insulting ‘Exhibit B’. While the exhibition has been promoted by the artist and its supporters as a subversion of the ‘human zoo’, it in fact contributes to the same tired, racist discourse. I am one of the few members of the African community living in Scotland, who through the arts, seek to genuinely challenge the exclusively negative stereotypical perceptions of Africa and her people that we are exposed to in Scotland. This is done by creating and sharing stories that demonstrate we are not so different to anyone else.

    As the momentum for Scottish independence moves further forward, it is even more disappointing that rather than seeking to address the problems of cultural cohesion that do exist in our societies, and demonstrating our similarities rather than our differences, we are instead forced by the arts establishment to regress back to age old racist ideals of a bygone era. The recently passed Maya Angelou stated. ‘When the storyteller tells the truth, she reminds us that human beings are more alike than unalike…’This exhibition tells us a one-sided truth from the same, tired perspective of someone who has never lived in the shoes of those he claims to speak for.

    While the organisers claim that this exhibition will spark a debate on racism and hope for lengthy discussions on the legacy of colonisation, it fails to see the damaging effect that this has on the African community living in Scotland, who will yet again have to combat the effects of this exhibition as it only expresses, confirms and legitimizes racist attitudes, opinions and ideologies of a dominant ethnic group. Scotland as a nation claims to want to engage with the ‘diverse voices’ of our communities but this exhibition is not the way to do it. It simply affirms the notion that black Africans are incapable of telling their own stories, We (the African community) are frustrated with this endless portrayal of Africans as ‘objects’ or ‘victims’, with someone else always telling our stories. In the last 10 years, I struggle to think of a single piece of art to emerge from Scotland that provides positive representations of black cultures that has not been relegated to ‘community theatre’. Perhaps an intelligent, strong willed, formidable African is the most threatening thing of all.

    While the blog post on the EIF website by Phil Miller calls the experience, ‘An overwhelming aesthetic and emotional experience,’ in reality work like this ‘… mythologises the reality and complexity of the lived experience of such atrocities, as images that are dehumanising and ugly are painstakingly recreated and enhanced for maximum aesthetic appeal. The agony of the lived experience is not witnessed here, but forgotten, as it is reduced to an icon or avatar, for a badge wearing art tourist, whose transformation after this event will last as long as it takes to get to the next distraction.’ (quoted from Annie George).

    I fail to see how this horrendous re-enactment of 19th century exploitation differs to a re-enactment of a public lynching done in the name of art or what somebody who goes to see this piece of ‘art’ feels that they will accomplish.

    Last year there was a similar exhibition at Summerhall and unforgivably for what should be an innovative and inspirational festival such EIF, this is not a new idea! Opposition to a similar human zoo in Norway led resident Muauke B Munfocol to question, ‘why the Norwegian government chooses to finance a project that reaffirms their part in a global white domination system where black people are dehumanised spiritually, economically, socially and culturally.’ Sadly, it seems that Scotland is just as guilty of this. Scotland will continue to see a rise in global cultural influences as immigration is part and parcel of human life and we have the potential to ensure that our young people grow to see these cultures, not as something threatening, but something that could enrich and inspire them.

    As not one member of the African community was included in the discussion as to whether this form of degrading and offensive ‘entertainment’ was appropriate, it would be, at the very least, considerate, to provide a response as to why in this day and age, the EIF and its funders/supporters consider this exhibition necessary.

    The concern is that race/racism/diversity is such a non issue in Scotland, that just like the Emperors New Clothes there are likely to be very few people who are bold enough to challange the status quo’. Joyce, Neil, Mark, Thom, all of you…are any of you up for it? Any controversy that may rise up in the brief and melodramatic wave before quickly disappearing into bubbles and steam as the media moves on to the next big issue serves to reduce the debate and any genuine discussion to nothing. What is the plan for engaging with black artists living and working in Scotland? If the intention of EIF is to create debate then how do you intend to do this with genuine intention and with long lasting effect? While the artist is having a grand old time clinking champagne glasses with the arterati, planning the next venue for this ‘vivid and intimate’ showcase, maybe a little thought as to the effect on the real people behind the glass cages may be in order.

    Mara (of Toto Tales)

  2. Hi Selina
    Thanks for your eloquent post and I share those same feelings about Exhibit B.
    I am a kenyan scottish storyteller and theatre maker living in edinburgh. Here is an open letter i wrote to EIF months ago and posted it widely but unfortunately and not unsurprisingly it failed to generate the discussion that I had hoped would emerge.

    My name is Mara Menzies and I would like to express my extreme disappointment at EIF’s decision to host the incredibly insensitive and highly insulting ‘Exhibit B’. While the exhibition has been promoted by the artist and its supporters as a subversion of the ‘human zoo’, it in fact contributes to the same tired, racist discourse. I am one of the few members of the African community living in Scotland, who through the arts, seek to genuinely challenge the exclusively negative stereotypical perceptions of Africa and her people that we are exposed to in Scotland. This is done by creating and sharing stories that demonstrate we are not so different to anyone else.

    As the momentum for Scottish independence moves further forward, it is even more disappointing that rather than seeking to address the problems of cultural cohesion that do exist in our societies, and demonstrating our similarities rather than our differences, we are instead forced by the arts establishment to regress back to age old racist ideals of a bygone era. The recently passed Maya Angelou stated. € ¢â’ ’¼When the storyteller tells the truth, she reminds us that human beings are more alike than unalike…€ ¢â’ ’½ This exhibition tells us a one-sided truth from the same, tired perspective of someone who has never lived in the shoes of those he claims to speak for.

    While the organisers claim that this exhibition will spark a debate on racism and hope for lengthy discussions on the legacy of colonisation, it fails to see the damaging effect that this has on the African community living in Scotland, who will yet again have to combat the effects of this exhibition as it only expresses, confirms and legitimizes racist attitudes, opinions and ideologies of a dominant ethnic group. Scotland as a nation claims to want to engage with the ‘diverse voices’ of our communities but this exhibition is not the way to do it. It simply affirms the notion that black Africans are incapable of telling their own stories, We (the African community) are frustrated with this endless portrayal of Africans as ‘objects’ or ‘victims’, with someone else always telling our stories. In the last 10 years, I struggle to think of a single piece of art to emerge from Scotland that provides positive representations of black cultures that has not been relegated to ‘community theatre’. Perhaps an intelligent, strong willed, formidable African is the most threatening thing of all.

    While the blog post on the EIF website by Phil Miller calls the experience, ‘An overwhelming aesthetic and emotional experience,’ in reality work like this ‘… mythologises the reality and complexity of the lived experience of such atrocities, as images that are dehumanising and ugly are painstakingly recreated and enhanced for maximum aesthetic appeal. The agony of the lived experience is not witnessed here, but forgotten, as it is reduced to an icon or avatar, for a badge wearing art tourist, whose transformation after this event will last as long as it takes to get to the next distraction.’ (quoted by Annie George).

    I fail to see how this horrendous re-enactment of 19th century exploitation differs to a re-enactment of a public lynching done in the name of art or what somebody who goes to see this piece of ‘art’ feels that they will accomplish.

    Last year there was a similar exhibition at Summerhall and unforgivably for what should be an innovative and inspirational festival such EIF, this is not a new idea! Opposition to a similar human zoo in Norway led resident Muauke B Munfocol to question, ‘why the Norwegian government chooses to finance a project that reaffirms their part in a global white domination system where black people are dehumanised spiritually, economically, socially and culturally.’ Sadly, it seems that Scotland is just as guilty of this. Scotland will continue to see a rise in global cultural influences as immigration is part and parcel of human life and we have the potential to ensure that our young people grow to see these cultures, not as something threatening, but something that could enrich and inspire them.

    As not one member of the African community was included in the discussion as to whether this form of degrading and offensive ‘entertainment’ was appropriate, it would be, at the very least, considerate, to provide a response as to why in this day and age, the EIF and its funders/supporters consider this exhibition necessary.

    The concern is that race/racism/diversity is such a non issue in Scotland, that just like the Emperors New Clothes there are likely to be very few people who are bold enough to challange the status quo’. Joyce, Neil, Mark, Thom, all of you…are any of you up for it? Any controversy that may rise up in the brief and melodramatic wave before quickly disappearing into bubbles and steam as the media moves on to the next big issue serves to reduce the debate and any genuine discussion to nothing. What is the plan for engaging with black artists living and working in Scotland? If the intention of EIF is to create debate then how do you intend to do this with genuine intention and with long lasting effect? While the artist is having a grand old time clinking champagne glasses with the arterati, planning the next venue for this ‘vivid and intimate’ showcase, maybe a little thought as to the effect on the real people behind the glass cages may be in order.

    Mara (of Toto Tales)

  3. Hi Selina, probably not a useful response but Brett Bailey created Vodou Nation at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2003 – I was working there as Lit Manager at time. It was utter rubbish, totally tanked and lost people included wyp a lot of money and credibility. He was also an arrogant arsehole who had no interest or respect in anything or anyone except himself. Very depressingly he’s another example of a white well educated privileged male who gets funding and status to make shit which everyone then applauds as ‘controversial’ and ‘original’. It’s just bad and he’s an idiot. EIF should be ashamed of being suckered into putting on racist garbage.

  4. AAAAARRRGGGHH! I was so mad when I left the exhibition. I have been talking about it ever since. You sum up my feelings exactly too. I have done work with asylum seekers and the idea of doing a work that presents them as voiceless really upset me. It is the opposite of what is needed. I felt as if we had gone back in time, that the fact that this exhibition is even considered “controversial” and not just “racist” says something about how far we are from true understanding of each other as a species.

    I felt the exhibition was a misjudged abuse of the power of art. It was manipulative and centred on a world-view that I do not recognise. No secrets or surprises, just a freakshow in which we are soothed with beautiful music to make the horror less horrific.

    I wish I was also done with it, but the five star reviews and the guilty faces of the mostly white audience tell me that might not be so easy. I can’t imagine that it will be easy to avoid the “where are you from? No where are you really from?” conversations after this.

    Chimamanda says it all.

  5. Really appreciate this post. I found out about Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B this week and it makes me so mad because in my opinion, its basically a spectacle produced for the white gaze. I worry that the audience in London will be similar to the audience you’ve described in Edinburgh (God help us). I don’t see how anything positive can come from this exhibition and see it as no more than a reproduction of the old human zoos that existed. I love your final sentence too, it’s a great ending!

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  8. Mara thank you for your post. While you had to endure the piece in Scotland we are campaigning hard to stop it even appearing in London. https://www.change.org/p/withdraw-the-racist-exhibition-exhibition-b-the-human-zoo. The group is focused and real direction in stopping with nonsense. We would like to include your voice and experience to the discourse. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Withdraw-the-racist-Exhibition-Exhibit-B-The-Human-Zoo/1531593703738074?notif_t=page_new_likes

  9. Hi Everyone, Thanks so much for your posts. I’m Courttia Newland and I’m one of a group of artists/activists and writers who have come together to petition the Barbican to not bring this show to London. We vehemently oppose the idea of putting Black people in cages in the name of art, and we are quite active on Twitter (#Boycottthehumanzoo #boycottbarbican #stopthehumanzoo), WhatsApp and Facebook in terms of coming together and campaigning against racism masquerading as art. It would be brilliant if we could join forces, especially in light of the EIF’s refusal to acknowledge your concerns, and there is a plan to picket the actual opening night in London. I’m including the link to the petition here: https://www.change.org/p/withdraw-the-racist-exhibition-exhibition-b-the-human-zoo. Most importantly, we as a group would like to connect with you all so please get in contact with me via twitter, or facebook (I don’t have What’sapp) so I can connect you with everyone else and what we’re doing. Many thanks,

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  11. Selina, thank you so much for your review. I really felt what you felt as you described your reaction truthfully – I felt the physical pain with you as I imagined I would, having reading all the reviews from educated white middle class and feeling that THEY were missing the point, and not the performers. Please would you share your post on the facebook page to boycott the london ‘show’ which asking the Barbican to cancel it. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Withdraw-the-racist-Exhibition-Exhibit-B-The-Human-Zoo/1531593703738074?notif_t=page_new_likes
    Thanks again!!

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  15. Selina,
    Thank you so much for this post – so expressive and eloquently put. I wonder where you stand on the successful campaign to close the exhibition in London? Is this a victory for those offended by Bailey’s work, or a dark day for social censorship of art… ? Or perhaps something more complicated and in-between.
    There are so many questions and arguments that are thrown up by this performance/exhibition and its closure – and I don’t think it’s as simple as drawing a dividing line between those who are offended and those who see some artistic value.
    Perhaps you’re someone who can unpick this knot better than I can? If so, I’d love to hear your response.
    Many thanks,

    • Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. It has been a bit of a shock for me how many people have read it, if I’m completely honest.

      I am lost, and confused about the campaign – and I’m going to sit down at the weekend, to try to unravel and express my thoughts about it, because there’s an awful lot going on. I was shocked by Tuesday’s events, and really appalled by the talk that was hosted at Nitro on Monday. I really didn’t think the work would be withdrawn/cancelled – and as somebody who has seen the work, I am acutely aware of how woefully uninformed a lot of the boycott campaign has been. As an artist myself, I cannot in good conscience support the silencing of an another artist – and my heart aches in particular for the performers, who are clearly so committed and passionate about the work. Bailey has performed the work throughout Europe, and will go on to New York and Paris with it. They will not get that chance. So I don’t think it is a victory in any sense. I also know that seeing Exhibit B – even as somebody that hated it – was extremely valuable for me. I think it will change the way I make work in the future. I’d be livid if somebody had taken that opportunity away from me.

      THAT BEING SAID

      I think the Barbican have handled this terribly
      IF YOU THINK THIS WORK IS BAD AND HARMFUL, ACTUALLY HARMFUL – HOW DO YOU MAKE A STAND? HOW DO YOU CREATE CHANGE? Someone somewhere has to be uncompromising. And that level of refusal to compromise is never going to be comfortable.
      Was there a way of compromising?
      I think the press release they sent to announce the cancellation of the work was quite manipulative
      I don’t think you have to see a work to protest against it – because that privileges the point of view of the maker
      I think when you are left in a position where you can’t boycott a work in any real way (i.e., it is sold out) protest is essential
      I don’t think you can say ‘I respect your right to protest – but I don’t want that protest to affect change in anyway’ – because that reveals a lot about how we see protest in this country, and again, a lot about who we are comfortable to see with power, and who we are not comfortable with powr
      And I think labelling what has happened as censorship ignores the fact that you need power to censor, that censorship comes from the top down – so what has happened here isn’t censorship exactly – it is something else, more difficult, complex, knotty.
      There is something about where this work is placed – who has made it, who talks about it, something about institutions and visibility that needs addressing.
      But I don’t know if this is the way to do it.

      I’m doing some more writing abut it soon, to try and unscramble these thoughts… I guess this is a preview!

      Big Love xxx

  16. Thank you for this article Selina.

    I am currently studying Exhibit B and the public’s reaction and I found this article the most useful and eye-opening of all.

    I struggled to find any publication or review of the Edinburgh exhibit not written by a White journalist. I will be thoroughly honest and say my ignorance initially made me wonder why such lengths would be taken to ban this at the Barbican. I feel very shocked at myself, and I thank you for opening my eyes.

    Laura

  17. Kia ora Selina, thanks for your eloquent and articulate response. I too saw the Exhibit in Edinburgh (I’m from NZ) and I was deeply conflicted about it. It’s great to see that so many voices are responding to it and isn’t it shameful there aren’t more in mainstream. This is mine a distinct kiwi response but being a brown woman of mixed descent it was like walking through a living graveyard.

    http://www.thebigidea.co.nz/news/whats-on-show-reviews/2014/oct/148888-exhibit-b-a-personal-response

    Nga mihi
    Dione

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