William Blake once wrote that, “The foundation of Empire is art and science. Remove them or degrade them and the Empire is No more. Empire follows Art and not vice versa as Englishmen suppose.”
Fast-forward to 2014 and the question of what is art and what is not art is rearing its head again. Exhibit B or The Human Zoo directed by Brett Bailey which was supposed to be on show at the Barbican is the bone of contention. It has now been cancelled due to protests.
There are two sides to every story. Firstly, there are the protestors, led by Sistar Sara Myers, a modern Queen Nzinga who opposed Exhibit B and called it RACIST. They object to the depiction of blacks in chains and various states of insubordination in human zoos as a desecration of the memory of Africans who were subjected to subhuman bondage during the African Holocaust.
In the opposing corner is the Barbican, a white South African Brett Bailey (the director), and various sections of the white community who object to the protests and claim Exhibit B is art and raises questions and issues surrounding racism. In addition, there are also black performers in the Barbicans’ camp who I will touch on therein.
I empathise with the protesters. I believe it is the moral duty of all decent and conscious human beings to protect the memory of those Africans and others who were held in subhuman bondage.
Exhibit B takes the piss and doesn’t restore these people with any dignity. Instead it treats them with contempt and continues to portray them as objects and not subjects with voices of their own. They are using their stories for profit and to satisfy their own perverted objectives. White people often brush off slavery and colonialism and tell black people to forget about it.
However, they are not so quick to brush off any profits or privileges that they accrue from the African Holocaust. As long as it benefits their ulterior objectives, it is fair game. However when it comes to reparations and land redistribution and affirmative action, they change their tune and say black people must get over it. It appears that they are prepared to claim what suits them from the colonial situation but write it off when blacks make their own claims based on that same subject.
Exhibit B continues to objectify and dehumanise Africans and serves the black community no purpose. It only reinforces negative and stereotypical representations of African people in the media and art. The history of black people is presented in white quarters as a long lamentation of repeated defeats. Nothing is said about the successful nation building attempts or their greatest achievements.
Nothing is said to relate the past to the present to demonstrate a historical evolution of the modern African. Nothing is said about their great stand in the struggle for freedom and the envisioned self. Rather, there are repeated attempts by the powers that be to project an arrested image of Africans, their culture, their progress and their subservience.
It only reinforces and continues colonial discourses. For centuries, art has been complicit in the colonial project. Edward Said in his phenomenal work, Orientalism, raised awareness about the representations of others or the Manichean opposite in Occidental literature, musical and visual arts.
Writers like Rupyard Kipling (Kim), Rider Haggard (She and King Solomon’s Mines), Conrad (Heart of Darkness) to name a few were actively involved in reinforcing stereotypes of Africans and Indians. Their literature constantly played on the racist notions of Africa or Asia arrested in time, or degenerating and inhabited by savages or the occasional noble savage.
Africa and Asia were constantly displayed as women that were to be penetrated, raped while the western metropolitan was always considered logical, civilised, ordered, etc. African writers like Chinua Achebe took on these colonial discourses and turned them on their heads exposing their racist perspective as illustrated in the pictures below.
It is clear that art and racism have always gone hand in hand. The minstrel shows featured white actors in blackface and other grotesque representations of blacks that often masqueraded as art. Famous celebrities like Judy Garland in Babes on Broadway and Bing Crosby in Dixie were not immune in featuring in these shows in blackface yet this was considered to be art. This was as recent as the 1940s.
The point is that these gross representations of blacks were produced for the consumption of white audiences. The same applies to the human zoos. Their
patrons were white also and had no compunction about patronising shows that dehumanised other human beings. The case of Sartjie Baartmaan is a typical example.
We must take stock of the nostalgia for empire, including the anger and resentment it ignites in those who were ruled or enslaved and had their way of lives destroyed by capitalists who behaved like nothing more than criminals in Africa and the colonies.
We must analyse the culture that nurtured the rationale, sentiment and imagination of empire. We must not lose sight of the hegemony of the imperial ideology which today has almost become embedded in the affairs of cultures whose less regrettable features we still celebrate.
We value freedom of speech and we respect and defend everyone’s right to free speech but object to dehumanization and contempt of others masquerading as freedom of speech. It is ironic that the enactment of black dehumanisation is depicted as art and protests against it considered censorship.
In this debate we cannot afford to lose sight of how colonialism and slavery, both crimes against humanity, utilized the disinterested movements’ such as philanthropy, religion, science and art to achieve its goals. The process of imperialism occurred beyond the level of economic laws and political decisions through the employment of recognizable cultural representations by continuing consolidation within education, literature and the visual and musical arts.
This was the point Blake was making about, “The Foundation of Empire is Art and Science”.
What is evident is that those who have the power [social, economical or political capital] or the victors control the narrative. In this case, the Barbican was imposing a “discussion” on its own terms without prior consultation of the people it was most likely to offend. It set the parameters of the discussion which it claims it was trying to stimulate. This reminds me of the words of Noam Chomsky:
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
This is akin to kicking or whipping the black community and then informing them how they should react to the beating. It is hypocritical. It is not constructive. It is impossible to maintain a fair or rational debate with people who participate in their exclusive pool of privileges when the playing field is uneven.
There are those in the Barbican camp who have labelled the protesters as “illiberal” or “racist”. To deal with the first point. It is a waste of time trying to prove who is more liberal than who. That is the white liberals problem to assuage their guilty conscience.
There is nothing liberal about acting in complicity with your oppression, demonisation or objectification of your people simply for people to say you are a liberal or have received a liberal education so you are not like “them”. This is the classic argument of the racist, stratifying the “good” blacks from the “bad” blacks or in the words of Malcolm X – the house negro and field negro.
The liberals are simply indulging in mind games. They are claiming their monopoly on intelligence and moral judgement while treating blacks like perpetual under 16s who constantly need guidance from these liberals.
Secondly, racism is a question of power! Without the power to subjugate, one cannot be racist. This language about reverse racism is the favourite pastime of frustrated liberals who feel that their trusteeship is being rejected.
No matter what the protestors do or say, they are not going to strip the liberals of their white privilege or segregate them in white only ghettoes. Steve Biko succinctly captured the reaction of white liberals when they felt their monopoly on intelligence and moral judgement was been eroded and their guardianship rejected:
“These self appointed trustees of black interests boast of years of experience in their fight on behalf of blacks, and because of blacks. When the blacks announce that the time has come for them to do things for themselves and all by themselves all white liberals shout blue murder!”
The protestors don’t have the power to subjugate anyone, let alone whites in the UK, because they lack the institutional, political, judicial, military, and economical capital required to subjugate anyone.
The protestors are responding to a situation they find themselves in where their black skin is being used as a mark of subservience. They are merely responding to white racism. There is nothing wrong with the protestors. Racism is a white problem. Racism is a white construct. Therefore, if there is anyone with a problem, it is white society. This is not a blanket condemnation of white people. There are exceptions to the rule.
However, we are concerned with group attitudes and politics here, not the individual. The exception does not make a lie of the rule, rather, it reinforces it. The big challenge to the liberal is can he really denounce his white privilege?
The obvious response is that it is unrealistic. It might be true but it only serves to illustrate that no matter what a white person does, their white skin, their Mastercard to privilege means it is almost impossible to escape the oppressor’s camp.
Ultimately, this is why blacks speak with a greater sense of urgency than the liberals because they are tackling a situation that they can’t escape. On the other hand, if the heat becomes too much, the liberal can always take a break or walk away. Blacks don’t have that luxury. They don’t have that privilege.
The protestors rallied together because of their unifying factor – their blackness. When members of Transport for London strike, no one accuses them of separatist tendencies. The same applies to firemen, teachers, nurses, etc. They are unified by their professions or industry to fight their own battles. However, when black people stand up for their rights, the liberal establishment detects an anomaly.
Ironically, it is a counter-anomaly. The anomaly was there right from the moment the liberals were presumptuous enough to think that it was their responsibility to use their privilege to speak on behalf of or fight the battle for the blacks.
In the aftermath of the cancellation, the fallout has begun. Various sections of the mainstream media have attacked the protesters. The attack on the protesters is counter productive. It is interesting to note the tactics being employed in the offensive against the protestors. The black performers are being used to lambast them and this does no one a favour. They only sound like they have been paid thirty pieces of silver to sell their souls out.
It also conjures up the words of Dr. Khalid Muhammad when he was describing the tactics of the right wing when they can’t beat a black man or woman. He said:
“When white folks can’t defeat you they’ll always find some Negro – some boot-licking, butt-licking, buck-dancing, bamboozled, half-baked, half-fried… punkified, pasteurized, homogenised nigger — that they can trot out in front of you.”
The use of black performers to attack the genuine concerns of the protestors also draws up questions about who represents the genuine aspirations, dreams and concerns of the black community. It is unrealistic that a handful of black performers can be the true representatives of the black people.
Therefore, they are not in a position to counter the voice and concerns of 23000 black voices. They are no different from Judas Iscariot, an extension of the enemy into the black ranks. They sold their souls for thirty pieces of silver. At least Judas Iscariot had the decency to kill himself when he realised the gravity of his betrayal. The protesters are not doing what they are doing for money or fame. Their integrity or moral stance was never up for sale by the highest bidder like the performers.
It is evident the black performers would do anything for fame and fortune. In that respect, they are no different from the multitudes of black entertainers who say and do whatever their handlers tell them to do even if that includes insulting their parents, elders, fighting their siblings or generally disrespecting the black community. They are no different to the multitude of black leaders in Africa, America and the West who come to power and do little or nothing to uplift their own people.
While these performers have every right to have their own opinions and engage in any financial transaction of their choosing but they must also respect the objections of the black community’s concerns about the way they are represented, how their story is told and who tells it.
It reminds me of another of Biko’s thoughts about real black people, “Black people -real black people – are those who can manage to hold their heads high in defiance than willingly surrender their souls to the white man.”
I listened to one of the performers on the Wright Stuff. She was awarded plenty of air time to air her views without anyone representing the other camp to challenge her. The predominantly white audience lapped up her shameful performance. That alone illustrates how the story is one sided. Sara Myers was provided a few minutes via a telephone link to put in one liners but not enough time to put her views across as this black performer.
When a question was put to this black performer, how she was censored, she was unable to provide a coherent answer. It was excruciating to watch. She went on to explain her role in the exhibition. She said she was playing a black woman in South Africa with a white mother and black father. She went on to say that if she had lived in South Africa in 1994, she would have been taken from her mother and thrown in a black area.
Her account is misleading. There was nothing like that in South Africa in 1994. As the product of a mixed race union in the 60s to about early 80s when the Immorality Laws were active, she would not have been classified as BLACK. She would have been COLOURED which was a strata above black people in South Africa with privileges black people were denied.
She would live in a coloured only area with better amenities than segregated black townships. By virtue of her white blood, she would enjoy some privileges denied black people as people who provided a buffer layer between black and white.
It is ironic this actress was ignorant of the history of the role she was playing yet she had the audacity to call Sara Myers ignorant. She had no idea about the role she was playing; therefore, she was not consciously informed to speak about whether the show was racist or not let alone condemn the protesters, many of whom are more informed about the African situation first hand.
The other disturbing aspect of the fallout is the language employed by some sections of the media. The diction is extreme and used to demonise the protestors. This language is no different to language used to demean, ridicule, undermine those who oppose power but don’t have the voices to reply. This mudslinging dehumanises the people it is aimed at and justifies attacks on them.
There are those in the press who claim the protestors censored the show. The Wright Stuff was drawing comparisons drawing between Hitler and Mussolini with the protestors. This is highly emotive stuff.
One has to remember that the former were heads of state and had the state apparatus, militias and the constitution to back them plus the army to enforce their decrees. Therefore, censorship like racism is a question of power and without it, you cannot censor anyone no matter how much noise or protests you make.
Therefore, it is highly irresponsible for people to draw up such mischievous comparisons which are not compatible. It is obvious those who make such decisions understand the least about censorship and power.
Censorship is not just a question of silencing what you disagree with. Power is what makes censorship possible. It is endorsed by the system and the constitution. In the art industry, there are the guardians of the industry. They decide who is exhibited, where they are exhibited and the likes.
They have the power to veto any form of artwork that doesn’t fit in with their values or criticises their ethics or moral stance. Therefore, the protestors had nothing to do with censoring the show as some mischievous quarters would like to suggest. The Barbican pulled the plug on the show.
According to reports, 25 000 people watched the show in Europe. However, the protestors raised a petition with 23 000 signatures and surely that number of people can’t be wrong. That is only 2000 people less than the audiences that watched Exhibit B in Europe.
There are more contemporary issues which the Barbican and people like Brett Bailey skirt. They would like to concentrate on the past providing a diversion from current issues such as the question of white privilege, equal access to resources, employment, education, reparations, institutional racism, equal justice and human rights.
Today, there are millions of black men and women locked up in human zoos called the prison industrial complex and detention centres yet no one raises discussions about the overrepresentation of blacks in these human zoos.
The question of racism is relevant today and it needs to be dealt with sensitivity and tact. Society can have a reasonable debate about feminism but when racism is involved, all decorum goes flying out of the window and there are heated exchanges and insults flying from both sides of the spectrum.
No one human being is perfect. That applies to institutions too. Brett Bailey and the Barbican should not be ashamed to admit they got it wrong. It is human. They might have got previous exhibitions and shows right but it is possible they got this one wrong and they can learn a lot from their mistakes rather than blame the protestors for their own undoing. When you court controversy, you should expect the backlash. You can’t always be right and everyone else wrong.
The furore surrounding Exhibit B raised a lot of questions. Probably one of the most poignant questions that was missed is: who has the right to tell which story? This is a question that is asked repeatedly in Postcolonial and Feminism Studies.
It is very difficult to assume that the critic (especially one from a privileged background) can ever speak on behalf of anybody, because the position of the critic and their object is never securely fixed. Their superior theory and enlightened compassion are inadequate as Sekou Toure reminds us:
To take part in the African revolution, it is not enough to write a revolutionary song. You must fashion the revolution with the people. And if you fashion it with the people, the songs will come by themselves.
In order to achieve real action you must yourself be a living part of Africa and of her thought; you must be an element of that popular energy which is entirely called forth for the freeing, the progress and happiness of Africa. There is no place outside that fight for the artist or for the intellectual who is not himself concerned with, and completely at one with the people in the great battle of Africa and of suffering humanity.