Human Zoo: The show must not go on


We live in one of the most diverse cities in the western world. London is what a globalized future looks like for and increasing number of world cities. As the demography of our cities changes, so should the diversity of a broad range of important institutions that make up our city, change to reflect the people its serves.

Compare the resident population of multicultural London with any of its important institutions, political, economic, cultural and what you see is the London of the 1950’s. Wherever you look, the Greater London Authority, Metropolitan Police, Mayors Office, London Fire Brigade, National Theatre, Royal Ballet and you see the same serried ranks of aged white men and women who dominate this city.

This is what the black community has termed the “ Guinness effect’, A large multicultural city or organization that has a substantial of black and brown presence in the lower orders, being ruled by a white elite.

In 21st Century London, such legacies of a colonial past still shape both the political and cultural landscape. To be fair most of these institutions have at least one token Black or Asian presence.

The Barbican in central London is a case in point, looking at their Board they appear to have only one black person in a city that is 40% Black and Asian. As a serious arts/ community organization, one wonders how the ‘liberal progressive arts’ have failed so miserably, to reflect the city of London.

Maybe that’s why they have chosen to put on controversial exhibition by South African artist Brett Bailey whose latest work Exhibit B includes an entire cast of black people in cages, in chains as part of some grotesque recreation of King Leopold’s of Belgium Human Zoo first seen in St Louis Missouri in 1914 and then again in the Bronx in 1916.

These were sickening attempts, to graphically justify, white colonial supremacy by placing Africans in zoo cages alongside apes and monkeys.

Africans like the famous pygmy Ota Benga, or the equally famous Native American Ishi.

Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, these types of shows became common and, none more so than the infamous capture and display of Sarah Baartman, an African woman who was sexually displayed as the Hottentot Venus.

All of these shows, exemplified the misguided scientific and anthropological attempt to justify white supremacy and give popular credence to scientific racism

Mr. Brett Bailey, a white man who grew up in apartheid South Africa, mistakenly believes that his piece is ‘thought-provoking’.

He said:

'Exhibit B is not apiece about black histories made for white audiences. It is a piece about humanity; about a system of dehumanisation that affects everybody within society, regardless of skin colour, ethnic or cultural background, that scours the humanity from the 'looker' and the 'looked at' "

However, the only people used in the exhibition are Black Africans, portrayed first as objects and then as and enslaved and oppressed people. It is a sign of the lack of respect for Africans in London that neither the Barbican nor Bailey thought is at all necessary to consult with our communities prior to bringing this wretched exhibition to the capital.

The Barbican's Head of Theatre, Toni Racklin defended the work saying:

'We appreciate that the work tackles controversial and sensitive issues.

'However I’d like to assure you that Exhibit B aims to subvert and challenge racial or cultural Otherness, not to reinforce it.’

That statement is simply astonishing in its level of arrogance. That such a statement can be made in response to legitimate criticism, from a broad range of black organizations, is simply breathtaking.

Black people, not white liberal elites are the best arbiters of the extent to which this exhibition is helping or hindering the challenge of combating racism and prejudice.

Racklin goes on to say:

'Exhibit B involves performers demonstrating the brutal reality behind colonisation accompanied by text that reveals the historical context of each scenario.

'The piece aims to explore the relationship between Western powers and Africa, ranging from exposing the abhorrent historical attitudes to race during the colonial era to questioning how far our society has moved on, by holding up a mirror to contemporary issues such as the current treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers.

'It provokes audiences to reflect on the historical roots of today’s prejudices and policies and how these have been shaped over centuries.

The fact that we as black organisations, are forced to have this conversation with the Barbican, bears witness to the iniquitous power relations that renders black people voice inaudible in such debates. We remain muted and silenced whilst watching images of our own oppression presented to the public as anti racist art.

The racial power dynamic here is as obvious, as it is dangerous. The Barbican, an all white management team, feels supremely confident and has the breathtaking audacity, to effectively tell us we don’t understand art or how to challenge racism,

Just like we don’t understand or ‘justice’ or ‘ employment law’ or the true meaning of ‘equality’. In the context of a racist society all claims of racism are met with routine denial.

Whilst the Barbican's ears, remain hard, the artist’s assumption must be that in ‘post racist societies’, such nuanced art can overcome the stubborn ignorance of the past.

It's an attempt to say ‘ look how far we have come’ to a society like Britain, that is still racist and still in denial.

The consequences of such liberal artistic naivety, presents real dangers, that racist stereotypes will be offensive and reinforced, rather than challenged.

Such marginalization, is part of our condition here in London. It is self evident I know, but is worth repeating, I can see no other peoples, whose culture and history is so ruthlessly and routinely insulted, undermined, exploited and prostituted as that of the African.

Could you imagine a similar show today with Jewish people in gas ovens, lets say produced by a German? No, neither can I, but when it comes to black people in London, both the artist Brett and the Barbican's Tony Racklin, feel perfectly able to suggest that this artwork will ‘educate’ Africans out of our apparent ignorance, to a place where we can truly appreciate its ‘inherent’ value. Such arrogance is sickening.

Art can escape the context in which it is produced, of that there is no doubt, however when one is dealing with such engrained and powerful prejudice such as racism, white artist have a responsibility to ensure that their work, is not some indulgent aspect of white privilege by checking with black communities that moves their work moves the debate about racism, forward not backward.

We have written to the Barbican pointing out the mistake they’ve made and demanding that they withdraw this exhibition and they have refused. We simply cannot allow the Barbican, one of the UK’s most prestigious arts establishments, to ride roughshod over our legitimate concerns.

The actual first performance will be at The Vaults in Leake St, London SE1 7NN on the dates 23-27th with tickets being booked via the Barbican .

Both Operation Black Vote and BARAC UK will now be calling organizing meetings arrange a series of actions at the Barbican and The Vault, we will be announcing these meeting and our regular pickets very soon.

Here is a link and text of a petition opposing the exhibition that has gained the support of 11,000 people in the few days since it was launched.

Join us on twitter using #boycottBarbican #stopthehumanzoo

Lee Jasper