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.



Sandile Memela

Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.

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