Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

Brett Bailey must choose – respect Africa or be damned!

There is a lot of consternation in some quarters following the cancellation of Brett Bailey’s visual arts show, Exhibit B, which purports to give insight into the dehumanisation and violent brutality of Africans by colonialism.

Many of the supporters are aggrieved that the work of this over-rated and provocative white African artist has allegedly being censored for “telling it like it is”. Apparently, the show provocatively displays the degrading and imperialist behaviour of his (sic) ancestors who murdered, raped and dispossessed Africans of their land and mineral resources.

In fact, this imperialist political control and economic domination continues to this day.

I am not going to debate the concerns of African friends and colleagues who saw Exhibit B in Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2012. They described it as “deeply disturbing”, “bordering on insults” and a “gleeful celebration of colonial perspective on African suffering, pain and agony”.

What I know is that everyone has to be cautious about voicing their opinions lest they be accused of depriving this rich and celebrated artist his right to freedom of expression that is enshrined in our Constitution. Rather what I want to concern myself with is the human agency and choice, if any, of African artists who have been part of this show and others similar to it. Why would a self-respecting African want to be part of this kind of show?

Perhaps what is important to recognise is that many so-called African artists who participate in “black face” shows like Exhibit B are, largely, motivated by economic reasons rather than artistic merit or any cultural conviction. They are so desperate for work that they are willing to do anything, including stooping to the lowest levels, to claw their way into a decent life.

Presumably, serious consumers of politically conscious arts will be aware of Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled that correctly portrays how African artists are compromised in the capitalist supremacist and patriarchal economic system. If not, I would urge people to check it out.

Throughout most of our history – especially in South Africa with producers like Bailey – African artists have been compromised to operate like askaris, that is, men, women and children who have joined the enemy ranks for survival and self-interest. They have allowed themselves to be brainwashed to believe that they can work from a colonial perspective to fight colonialism. It is called “fighting the system from within”. Of course, history has taught us that this is a waste of time. You cannot overcome that which you have allowed to take over your mind to define how you are portrayed even if it is to put food on the table.

Now, we are told by these same African artists who collaborate with colonial perspectives and artistic products that it is a way to intervene in white supremacists’ works that project and portray Africans as inferior, submissive and meek in the face of colonialism. But we have to challenge this Eurocentric view that African people were docile and had no choice but to be put in cages to be displayed to European voyeurs who paid plenty of money to watch the “human zoo”. African artists must challenge that view if they want to be taken seriously.

I don’t know about the freedom of choice that this calibre of artist has because – without taking up these jobs that portray Africans in a negative light – they will be condemned to being unemployed, marginalised and face poverty. Thus to survive they need to commit crimes against their own people. That is, if they can be considered to be on the side of Africa and her people in the fight against colonial domination and control.

For instance, in the so-called free and new South Africa where the means of artistic production are still controlled and dominated by whites – especially in the film, television and visual arts sector – there is an unprecedented number of so-called African artists who have been forced to assimilate and collaborate with the European perspective and view on African experiences and realities, including what happens in the townships and rural African settings that whites have not visited.

In fact, a new cultural context has been recreated where askaris are now redefined as those who have “made it”. What is concealed is that they have been forced by economic circumstances to subject themselves to white or European mind control to portray the African experience in a negative light.

Rather than spend time and energy on the rightness or wrongness of Bailey’s Exhibit B, we have to begin to question the role of those so-called African artists who perpetuate colonial domination and thinking for self-interest and economic survival. These men and women who are paraded as having freedom of choice and have the right to “tell the African story” are nothing else but gate-keepers who help descendants of colonialists to continue to exercise mind control over how African experiences are understood and interpreted in the 21st Century.

Otherwise, there is no reason why an African artist of integrity would stand on the side of colonial descendants who, in the name of art, continually assaults, exploits and undermines Africa and what she has gone through under imperialism and neo-colonialism.

In fact, nowhere is this trend more evident than in the South African television and film industry, among others, where producers, script writers and directors are dominantly white people who are outsiders to the authentic black or African experience. Ironically, these are the same people who have the power to tell the African Story.

At the heart of the Generations story is the battle for defending the integrity of African artists, their right to be treated with respect and dignity and to unlock what they consider to be white supremacist control. The resolution of the Generations debacle will shape the future of African creative control, self-determination and freedom to tell African stories as they are known by Africans themselves.

Thus when militant black resistance to Exhibit B broke out in London with globalized Africans choosing to defend how the African experience is portrayed, the role of those who consider themselves African artists has been brought to question. The way in which African artists have acted in complicity with the existing racist super-structure has, at last, been brought out to be critically examined and questioned.

Even though some so-called African artists have responded to the cancellation of Bailey’s by asserting his artistic freedom of expression and their own right to collaborate with him, it is now clear that such artists who reflect a colonial mentality and uphold supremacist perspectives have come to a dead end. They must explain themselves to Africa and her people. Otherwise, artists who defend and protect colonialist and supremacist biases will always be viewed as suspect, as potential traitors who are willing to do anything to fill up their empty stomachs at the expense of African integrity, dignity and self-respect.

There is nothing wrong with African artists collaborating with descendants of colonialists to tell the African story. But it is not asking for too much when the global African village demands that we pause to think and critically debate about how we continue to allow African stories that promote and preserve a colonial perspective to flourish.

For a very long time, African artists have gotten away with murder when it comes to the negative portrayal of the continent and her people for self-interest and economic survival. It is time that we, as the government has urged us, “tell our own stories to move us forward”. It begins with Africans being true to themselves, first, before they please their bosses.

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    • Rich Brauer

      What a wonderful expression of the mindset of our dear comrades at the Department of Arts & Culture.

      Not only can Cde. Memela condemn the work, sight unseen, but the artist himself *and* his colleagues. Indeed, in the name of affirming African agency, he feels perfectly comfortable speaking on behalf of people who, in all likelihood, he’s never even met, let alone asked their purpose in taking part in the piece.

      Bravo!, Cde. Memela, for showing us precisely how our dear comrades truly view their lessers hailing from the African continent — not as individual humans with thoughts, beliefs, and agency of their own, but as a mute mass requiring the tender leadership and re-education through the proper dialectic of the one, true party.

    • Momma Cyndi

      “so-called African artists” …. is this questioning their ethnicity or their artistic ability? Why insult people without even speaking to them to get their views?

      As for bringing Generations into this, could I ask what Generations has to do with an art exhibition or white people?

      I have not seen this exhibition and have no desire to. I have to give it to the artist though. If the purpose of art is to evoke emotion and create conversation, he must be a veritable modern day Picasso.

    • mojo

      your article demeans the exhibit B performers into simplistic collaborators whose only intent is to make a quick buck. as if they have no sense of their own reasoning and are brainwashed into some kind of grotesque show. they deserve way more credit than you allow. and no, they do not need to “respect africa” as you so didactically put it. they can and have decided for themselves to be a part of exhibit B because they believe in the meaning behind its message as a piece of contemporary performance art.

    • Dries

      Please do feel free to try and dictate your narrow ideas of what is “African” and “Colonialist descendant” on what you refer to as “African” artists… but I’m afraid that it might come as a surprise to you just how big, varied and dynamic a place Africa really is. And I find it quite disingenuous that you should complain about African representations in art while throwing an American film dealing with American experiences in an American context at us as some sort of example to follow.

    • Lee Jasper

      Great article and we, here in London are grateful for this intervention. The global African diaspora needs more of these sorts of conversations in an effort to tackle white privilege and associated supremacy. As one of the organisers of the protests I’ve written about our cause here Also do visit and we would value making links with our brother and sister in South Africa.

    • Syd Kaye

      I didn’t have the patience for the rest of it but as regards the Generations actors isn’t it a simple matter:
      Employees demanding more than the emplyers wishes to pay.
      Employees unilaterally demanding they are entitled to not only their agreed salary but royalties or profit share that is the reward of the risk takers and capital supplier.
      Isn’t that the South African story of entitlement.

    • funnybone

      It is time that we, as the government has urged us, “tell our own stories to move us forward”. It begins with Africans being true to themselves, first, before they please their bosses.

      Well get on with it then, we’re all waiting. Yawn.

    • Stephen

      Oh come on. Art is about self expression, unique to each and all. How can it be a ‘black’ or ‘white’ thing? Are you saying that all creative thinking whilst in Africa should be the preserve of [black] Africans?

    • Kaganof
    • Eugene

      I have this feeling that with any white artist portraying Africa, it is a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Portray Africans as happy, confident people, and you’ll be accused of ignoring the terrible past. Portray the horrors of the past and you’ll be accused of perpetuating the notion of Africans as helpless victims. Paint African wildlife for the market, and you’re a bourgeois exploiter of the romantic image many people have of Africa. You can’t win.

      Where does this leave the artist? As Memela points out, most whites don’t know a thing about what it is like to live in a township, so perhaps they should just pretend that Africa doesn’t exist at all? Of what would they be accused then?

      I think Rich Brauer makes a good point above. Perhaps it isn’t really about the art in the first place. It’s just the comrades wanting full control over everyone and everything.

      If you ask me, we make too much of the whole thing. Artists are craftsmen and entertainers who have to make a living, just like everyone else. Let them make a living, I say – it can’t hurt the economy.

    • Melvyn Minnaar

      A perfect example of the kind of half-baked sophistry that sinks any real argument about African art. Read Terence Blacker on what he calls ‘comfortable stupidity':

    • Zeph

      This piece encapsulates all that is wrong in South Africa.
      It is an offense if you have independent thought or actions unless authorised by the Social Engineering Department. But be warned the act of applying for accreditation to the SOD shows independent thought and action and is an offense in itself.
      No wonder we are stagnating!

    • biobot

      European Mind Control would be a cool name for a band.

    • Leibnitz

      I respect the work of this commentator, but disagree. The Nazis had a similar principle about art – only clean, healthy Nordic European art was respected, and all ‘degenerate’ art was banned. Including African art and music. Goebbels didn’t bother with a reason – he just said ‘respect European art.’ He also said almost EXACTLY the same thing as this ‘In fact, nowhere is this trend more evident than in the South African television and film industry, among others, where producers, script writers and directors are dominantly white people who are outsiders to the authentic black or African experience.’ Goebbels said that we need a German radio and TV, as producers, script writers and directors are dominantly Jews who are outsiders to the authentic white or European experience. (check the Goebbels speeches).

    • Zeph

      @biobot – damn, you are right. European Mind Control! Fan-bloody-tastic.

    • Haiwa Tigere

      Thanks Sandy for stating what needs to be said. Great article

    • C. Enoch

      @ Memela. Heard you on the radio. You speak as badly as you write.

      But this time you surpassed even yourself:
      14 repeats of the word ‘colonial/colonialism’
      22 repeats of the word ‘artist/artistic’
      and 35 repeats of the word ‘African’!
      Did anyone ever tell you that repetition in writing is the first cardinal sin of really bad writing?
      And lost in all this repetitious verbosity, is the same regurgitated anti-White racism.
      Nothing changes – except that your writing gets worse – if that’s possible!

    • Carel Jooste

      So white artists portraying black people in horrific historical conditions perpetuates the underdog image whereas, presumably, black artists doing the same would be bravely exposing the past atrocities? White inability to engage with black trauma? Really? Next time also check what “black face” means in theatre terminology – suave usage of wrong language undermines ones credibility as commentator.