Friday 29 August 2014

Confronting colonialism: why Brett Bailey's Human Zoo exhibition is a bad idea

Exhibit B - The Human Zoo by artist Brett Bailey consists of a series of caged black actors dressed up as exhibits of the human zoos which toured Europe and America in the 19th-early 20th centuries. It's already been shown in various places including Edinburgh and is due to arrive at the Barbican in London in late September. 

The Barbican says the exhibition is intended to 'confront[s] colonial atrocities committed in Africa, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of immigrants today' and aims to 'empower and educate rather than exploit'. This post is about why I don't think the exhibit can work as stated and more generally, why it's a bad idea.

The Human Zoo is more re-enactment than representation

We all know re-enactment societies, right? Adults dressing up a medieval knights and fighting tournaments, that sort of thing. But would you re-enact the Holocaust? A witch-burning? Do you think it would be acceptable to form a 'Deep South Slave Plantation Re-enactment Society?' With racially profiled roles? That's essentially what we're being invited to participate in here, with 'us', the spectators, paying to occupy the role of colonial audience while paid actors play the role of our exploited victims.

The visual nature of the exibit and the stage directions to the actors limit the experience to pure display

I think it is perfectly acceptable to study and make culture about even the worst atrocities of history, but I expect such work to steer clear of voyeurism and acknowledge the humanity of those involved. This becomes possible when exploited people are given voices, agencies, backstories... It's difficult to convey those things in a purely visual medium but Exhibit B - The Human Zoo isn't even trying. Perhaps if the actors could interact freely with the audience, tell the stories and feelings of their characters, confront spectators about their viewing, we would be having the kind of experience promised by the Barbican's publicity. But I gather that goes against the stage directions.

The role of 'spectator' is divorced from the original colonial context and constitutes an act of neo-colonialism

While the actors re-enact the role of specific victims of colonialism, the spectators aren't particularly invited to think of themselves as spectators of the same period. It's probably just as well because we're inherently anachronistic. Assuming the exhibition is directed at London in general, quite a large proportion of the potential audience is directly descended from the colonised. I'm not surprised to find many of them actively rejecting the role of colonial exploiters.

And what about the rest of us? I'm might be descended from people who formed the target audience for the original human zoos, but nevertheless...  I'm not a barely literate mill girl who's rarely seen anyone from more than a few miles outside her birth community. I'm a highly educated member of an incredibly globalised middle class. I can imagine why my great-grandmother might have the curiosity to attend a human zoo and the ignorance not to realise what was wrong with the idea. Perhaps I would get something out of a sensitively made representation of the interaction between people like her and people like the victims of human zoos. What I can't imagine is why I would pay 20 quid to go and gawp at a racially profiled subset of my fellow citizens dressed up as supremely exploited historical figures. In fact, I have no intention at all of doing so. Far from being educational and empowering I see it as a mutually degrading experience with no up side.

Why I think this is external to issues of censorship in the arts

As you've probably realised by now, there is a protest against this exhibition and I support it. I hope the Barbican, artist and actors reconsider lending themselves to it. It's true that contemporary art has traditionally been granted the widest latitude to include material many of us find offensive or disgusting and many people feel that is an important role. Lots could be said about the rights or wrongs of art censorship but in this case I have reasons for thinking that debate is irrelevant.

Because of the nature of contemporary art and the particular status of this artwork as a re-enactment, protesting, boycotting or preventing its exhibition isn't censorship, it's a style of participation which would mean that in London Exhibit B - The Human Zoo played out in a particular way. As I said above, we've been offered the role of neo-colonialist spectators but unlike the actors we haven't been given any guidance on how to perform or what meanings to derive from the experience. Given the person I am, I can't imagine appearing in this re-enactment as anything other than a protester and boy-cotter. That's a role which strikes me as potentially educational, empowering and a suitable confrontation with colonialism.

I urge everyone else to consider doing the same. Apart from this post, my further participation is going to be hampered by absence from London, but if the exhibition goes ahead, I urge everyone, protesters, spectators and actors alike to participate by undermining it in the (peaceful) anti-colonialist method of your choice. Peacefully (and artistically) busting the actors out of there and taking them down the pub instead would have been my first choice. petition against the exhibition 
Thanks to Yemisi Ilesanmi for alerting me to this exhibition

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