By Moriah Gibson, Tyson Hardnett, and Andy Stevens
Derogatory human zoo or work of art?
Who: Brett Bailey
What: Exhibit B
Where: The Barbican, London, United Kingdom
When: September 23-27, 2014
Why: Controversial use of a human zoo portraying Africans
South-African artist Brett Bailey and his company, Third World Bunfight, put together an art installation known as Exhibit B. This piece displays black subjects in uncomfortable and compromising scenarios by using live human subjects. Bailey aims to shed light on the history of the mistreatment of Africans, including through slavery and colonization. The installation also drew inspiration from human zoos, which exoticized the bodies of Africans for entertainment. This piece is only the second of three Exhibits—A, B, and C—that explore forms of racism during the colonial period of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Bailey’s use of black human performers to recreate such crude images in history separates Exhibit B from other exhibits. Through the art form of tableaux-vivant, the performers follow the spectators’ gazes as they walk through the exhibit in order to elicit reflection and discussion. Some of the more famous images from the exhibit include Figure 2 and Figure 3, which show an African woman chained to her bedpost and an African man with his mouth, hands, and legs bound by tape.
Exhibit B was featured in several prominent European cities, stirring up controversy along the way over the nature of its presentation and raising protests in these locations (Carvajal). In 2014 the Barbican Centre in London censored the exhibit, as protesters to the piece argued that it is racist and that it portrays Africans in a negative light. Bailey responded that his exhibit is not a display of racism, but that he wants to expose the past in order to shed light on a grim part of history in order to keep it from being overlooked or forgotten (Andrews and Odunlami).
Exhibit B is far from the first installation to be defined as a human zoo. Just as Bailey’s exhibit has been accused of, human zoos have been called out in the past for “exhibiting ‘otherness’ by emphasizing…differences of the displayed persons” (Trupp 139). The idea of the human zoo is derived from the concept of “the freak show’” (Blanchard 19). A pair of figures that contributed to the development of this form of entertainment was conjoined twins, Chang and Eng, who, after being discovered in 1824 in Siam (now Thailand) by a Scottish merchant, were brought over to Europe and the United States by P. T. Barnum as “objects of entertainment and pseudo-scientific investigation” (Trupp 140). Since Barnum’s “freak show,” the perception of humans on display in human zoos has ranged from repulsion to curiosity and more.
The “otherness,” highlighted by Trupp, has become a common theme in the critiquing of human zoos, because they cultivate and enhance the idea of a “them” and an “us” by creating a physical separation between those viewing the zoo and those observing the zoo. In these exhibits, an emphasis is placed on the aesthetic or eroticized bodies on display along with the cultural artifacts or the physical skills of the people, in order to stress the differences or uniqueness of a particular culture. In this regard, these zoos were often praised for preserving the cultures. Colonial human zoos, however, were defined as spaces “to place a man [sic], with the intention that he should be seen, in a specific reconstructed space, not because of what he ‘does’ (an artisan, for example), but because of what he ‘is’ (seen through the prism of a real or imagined difference)” (Blanchard 23, as qtd in Trupp 140). Entering the mid nineteenth century, human zoos shifted yet again to show the idea of how advanced, modernized, and superior western culture had become in comparison to those of the “others” represented in the zoo. In the twentieth century, modern human zoos were considered to be a form of “‘ethnic tourism’” (Trupp 139) in which individuals are entertained by observing other cultures from living works of art. They eventually decreased in popularity in the 1940s due to the rising new forms of media that zoos had to compete with, such as radio and television.
Exhibit B, however, contradicts these styles of human zoos and subverts the historical roles that they’ve played. Sieg notes that “Exhibit B addresses spectators as witnesses urged to respond to an emergency” (251. Sieg even notes that the only similarity between the colonial human zoos and Exhibit B is “the display of live bodies of performers of colour” (254). One large way that Exhibit B departs from the standard human zoo is how Bailey turns the colonial history into the actual subject matter of his installation.
From September 23 to September 27, 2014, the Barbican Centre was set to present Exhibit B at the Vaults Theatre location in London. However, after an article was published on The Guardian, a petition on change.org appeared, calling on the Barbican to cancel the show’s opening night, set for September 23, as well as the following performances from September 24 to September 27. The petition was started by “Boycott the Human Zoo,” which is “a coalition of anti-racism activists, trade unions, artists, arts organizations and community groups” (Farrington). The main objections listed in the petition included that the exhibit’s aim to recreate a great time of hardship for African peoples, and by creating solutions to modern racism, it reinforces that negative attitude toward African individuals without their consent.
Bailey himself responded to these negative critiques, stating,
The intention of Exhibit B was never hatred, fear, or prejudice. It is about love, respect and outrage. Those who have caused Exhibit B to be shut down brand the work as racist … They accuse me of exploiting my performers. They insist that my critique of human zoos and the objectifying, dehumanising colonial/racist gaze is nothing more than a recreation of those spectacles of humiliation and control … I appreciate that interpretations of this piece, as of any creative work, can vary, and that my intention to explore the machinations of systems of racism and how they dehumanise all who are touched by them can be read in different ways. I do not portray the world in the binaries of black and white, wrong and right, good and evil. I am an artist who works with colours and shades.
The day before Exhibit B was set to open, the Barbican posted a response to the petition, stating:
[We] accept that the presentation of Exhibit B has raised significant issues and undertake to explore these further. But we cannot accept that the views expressed, however strongly felt, should be a reason to cancel the performances. We have an undertaking to our committed performers and to our audiences who wish to explore these difficult subjects. We state categorically that the Barbican is not neutral on the subject of racism; we are totally opposed to it and could not present a work that supported it.
Nonetheless, this statement failed to diminish the protests. By opening night, over 150 protesters gathered outside the entrance to the Vaults, in a tunnel. By police recommendation, the Barbican had no choice but to cancel Exhibit B’s opening night, as well as the rest of the showings (Farrington). These protests inspired similar ones in Paris, however Exhibit B was not canceled there.
Besides the United Kingdom, Third World Bunfight made a sizable impression on audiences in other European cities, two of which include Brussels, Belgium, and Berlin, Germany. The installation itself addressed these two countries’ histories specifically, including Belgium’s African colonization and Germans’ connection to Namibia (depicted in Exhibit A).
Chikha and Arnaut (672) describes both performances by looking into five types of scenes Bailey uses within the installation:
- A half-naked figure rotating on a plateau
- An illegal immigrant dead on a compulsory flight returning home
- Events in local history involving sexual violence
- Figures in modern clothing appearing as refugees or undocumented immigrants
- Four encased bodies of singers with their heads producing music
The performances of Exhibit B in Brussels and Berlin were crafted to include actors from diasporic communities within both cities and local acts of violence were related to colonial events to elicit a response from audiences in both countries. In Belgium, spectators were occupied with thoughts about how “others” were classified by skin color, rather than by speaking French or Dutch (Chikha and Arnaut 675). The rotating figure rendered universal significance as an example of victimization, while the “Samira Adamu” figure only held national significance. This experience was similar to Berlin’s showing, only with “Samira Adamu” being named “Aamir Ageeb” instead.
Yet even in Germany, the organization Bühnenwatch, criticized Exhibit B, accusing Bailey of “reproducing” the “historical” human zoo by using black actors as “mere objects of white inspection” (Chikha and Arnaut 674). Bailey responded to this charge by calling the installation only “performance theatre” (Chikha and Arnaut 676). The organization was convinced that “there is no analysis of sources and mechanisms of racism, so there is no fostering of a critical discussion” (Sieg 254). Bühnenwatch questioned the motive behind the actors’ gazes, believing them to be used as resistance rather than a mental reversing of the roles between “white organizer” and “Black exposed” (Chikha and Arnaut 676).
Exhibit B, however, functions as part of a trend in modern art. Yet in other modern examples, the scrutinized subjects are overtly exploited. In Thailand, for instance, there are villages serving as attractions due to exhibiting refugees from Myanmar known as Kayans. The women within the ethnicity are particularly known to wear brass rings around their necks, as seen in Figure 4. In the 1980s, the “Long-Neck-Kayans” drew attention from both Thai and overseas visitors, and later received heavy promotion from provincial tourist administrations and private business (Trupp 146). In turn, a bulk of the income the Kayans bring in is due to souvenirs and international visitors. On the other hand, China as adopted an unusual variant of the human zoo though its ethnic theme parks. Shenzhen, for example, hosts China Folk Culture Villages, a 22-hectare area dedicated to 24 villages housing 22 of China’s 56 recognized nationalities. Opening on October 1, 1991, China’s National Day, the park attracts visitors to its village shows for tickets priced 120 yuan, or 17.70 in US dollars. Though its brochure brags about receiving “big-name” visitors, most of China Folk Culture Villages’ traffic comes from within the mainland or urban areas (Trupp 144). The establishment of ethnic theme parks in China seem to draw from the Han, China’s majority population, glamorizing their images of minority peoples; attractive minority women are featured in many village houses in an erotic nature.
While it can be argued that the installation is found to be degrading and a regression in human rights, many more praised Exhibit B for challenging attitudes toward minorities, even to this day. Brett Bailey truly fulfilled the idea that future progress cannot be achieved without evaluating how the past has led to the present.
Andrews, Odunlami, “Is Art Installation Exhibit B Racist?.” The Guardian, 27 Sept 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/27/is-art-installation-exhibit-b-racist.
Bailey, Brett. “Yes, Exhibit B is challenging – but I never sought to alienate or offend.” The Guardian, 24 Sept 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/24/exhibit-b-challenging-work-never-sought-alienate-offend-brett-bailey.
Blanchard, P., Nicolas, B., Boetsch, G., Deroo, E., & Lemaire, S. (2008). Human Zoos: The Greatest Exotic Shows in the West: Introduction. In P. Blanchard, N. Bancel, G. Boetsch, E. Deroo, S. Lemaire & C. Forsdick (Eds.), Human Zoos. Science and Spectacle in the Age of Colonial Empires (pp. 1-49). Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press.
Carvajal, Doreen. “On Display, and on a Hot Seat.” The New York Times, 25 Nov. 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/26/arts/exhibit-b-a-work-about-human-zoos-stirs-protests.html?_r=0.
Chikha, Chokri Ben, and Karel Arnaut. “Staging/Caging ‘Otherness’ in the Postcolony: Spectres of the Human Zoo.” Critical Arts, vol. 27, no. 6, 2013, pp. 661–683.
Farrington, Julia. “Case study: Exhibit B.” Index on Censorship, 21 Jul 2015, https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2015/07/case-study-exhibit-b/.
Sieg, Katrin. “Towards a Civic Contract of Performance: Pitfalls of Decolonizing the Exhibitionary Complex at Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B.” Theatre Research International, vol. 40, no. 03, 2015, pp. 250–271.
Trupp, Alexander. “Exhibiting the ‘Other’ Then and Now: ‘Human Zoos’ in Southern China and Thailand.” ASEAS – Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2011, pp. 139/149.
Africans, Barbican, Brett Bailey, Colonialism, Exhibit B, History, Human Zoo, Picket, Protest, Racism.