Brett Bailey, an award-winning South African theatre director and artist, thought it would be a brilliant idea to recreate a painful period of colonial history by reconstructing what turns out to be a human zoo as a traveling art installation. In his mind this was going to be a smart aesthetic reminder to the world that there is a cruel history of colonisation and slavery in our not-so-distant past that continues to impact on Africans in Europe today. Part of his offering to the arts world is the painful reminder that in our recent history black women were but chattel for the sexual deviance of the colonial white man, who would chain her to the bed with a studded collar around her neck and ravage and rape her whenever the feeling took him — among other reconstructions of atrocities wreaked upon black people by white colonisers.
Bailey was also going to be uber-smart and use the “gaze trope” to make his point about something or other — he never really adequately articulates what this is.
So Bailey set about creating this installation with real live black folk who were given strict instructions to remain stock still — to use only their eyes to defy, challenge and gaze back at the well-heeled audiences who would attend this pricey exhibition in select European high-brow art galleries. Bailey’s vision culminates in a macabre installation based on the museums of last century where black bodies were cast in plaster and placed behind glass boxes for public scrutiny. He merges this with the historical reality of live black people being displayed for the amusement of white folk in freak shows that travelled around Europe at a time when black folk were relegated the same status as animals in the European imaginary.
This, I suppose, is a form of extreme art — the constructing of an uncomfortable experience for the viewers who would be forced to gaze into the heart of darkness as it were — to gaze into the eyes of the oppressed and confront their own je ne sais quoi? Are they confronting their own guilt, or their own sense of relief that they are not their ancestors and would never ever do this to another human being? Bailey spoke of white guests crying or running off into the night to nurse their pain after being made to confront such cruelty — as if their pain is the relevant and central issue here.
I never, though, read about anyone of the art gallery visitors saying that after this experience they were more able to recognise the premise of their own white privilege to which they were previously oblivious. None of them said they would devote the rest of their lives to deconstructing whiteness, to anti-racism, to speaking out loud and clear against on-going oppression of black people.
And it was all premised on that gaze — that constructed black sullen blaming impenetrable infuriating discomforting gaze — you know the one most whites refuse to acknowledge in their gardener’s or domestic worker’s eyes when they get paid a salary way below their worth in real life. That gaze that every white person has had to confront at least once in their lifetime when they have spoken to a black person as if they are persona non-gratis — as all good whites are taught to do.
Beatific Brett — brilliant Brett — extreme art — extreme inventiveness — genius — moving experience. The accolades rolled in.
So you can imagine how Bailey’s personal pleasure at his own virtuosity came tumbling down around him when the London backlash from outraged black communities was set in motion in the form of an online petition calling for the Barbican to withdraw the human zoo exhibition — as it had come to be known. He was dumbfounded, perplexed and defensive.
Then the petition, started by journalist and activist Sara Myers, gained momentum. Many black political and social movements joined in the call to withdraw this so-called art installation — to stop the harrowing, insulting and objectifying white use of black body for art — to desist from displaying their ancestry to predominantly white audiences in a manner that did not speak of the incredible spirit for survival and genius that black people have displayed despite this cruel history. Black protestors were against the re-inscribing of historical oppression as if this is all they stood for.
They spoke against the lack of agency in the actor’s roles, the placing of whiteness in the centre of this experience in a way that nullifies black autonomy. They spoke of the sexualisation of black female bodies and the fetishizing of black suffering. They asked who the exhibition was aimed at because black folk did not need to learn about this history — that they still lived it in systemic oppression and racism and needed no reminders.
They wondered why Bailey had not been really brilliant and turned the gaze inward onto whiteness itself instead of the old hat trick of externalising white deviance onto black body.
Bailey offered no coherent answers to any of this. He sidestepped with brushstroke answers and vague race theory. He obliquely implied that they were all fools with no contemporary art knowledge to speak of. The cracks in his non-racism began to show. He used the “some of my best friends are black” responses and in my opinion never once gave a clear answer to any of the critical questions being posed to him
At 20 000 signatures Bailey changed his tune from cavalier to a shakier and considerably less confident tone. Then a journalist wrote a biased piece in his favour — in which he still did not answer the questions being asked of him. Rather he called the protestor’s radical and whinged that they wanted to shut art down. He also implied, as did many of his supporters, that 20 000 (and counting) dissenters had just “missed the point”.
Highbrow art professors and intellectuals rushed to his defence. One of them in-boxed me this response to the petition that I had sent to many of my Facebook friends.
“I was profoundly moved by Exhibition A when I saw it at the National Arts Festival, and believe this petition stems from a confusion between artworks and the sources they are parodying. The work was fiercely critical of colonial atrocities and blunt in its critique. It did not exploit people to convey its message. As with the call to suppress Kaolin Thomson’s ‘Useful Objects’ in 1996, I believe this petition is highly problematical, stems from misunderstanding about the purpose and effect of the artwork, and has the potential to suppress freedom of expression in South Africa. So, no, I won’t be signing this horrifying petition.”
This discourse deflected the very real concerns outlined in the petition and constructed it as “horrifying” — much more so than the act of objectifying live black bodies in cages and chains. The Third World Bunfight board released a statement in which they called the protest a “vitriolic invective” on Bailey’s work. The master narrative was in full swing — employing the colonial practice of “othering” the black backlash — deeming it less than rational and thus less worthy to be heard than they.
This became a discourse war in which people who are not black sought to de-legitimise the counter narrative — write it off as “less than” and dismiss dissenters as intellectually incapable of “getting it”. Astonishingly this intellectual class seems to lack the ability to reflect on how culturally imperialistic this dismissive attitude is … especially from people who imagine they would “never ever” practice imperialism of any sort.
Cultural imperialism involves taking the culture of the economically dominant class and establishing it as the norm. The groups that have power in society control how the people in that society interpret, communicate and even respond to all things public. The dominance of this discourse is pushed via the media, via academic institutions, via popular culture and high art. It is this whitewashed lens that controls discourse and this worldview plays a critical role in shaping issues and in identifying the boundaries of “legitimate” discourse.
The dominant discourse is precisely that which uses its immense power to interpret and explicate major social, political and economic issues and events according to its own construction.
It is through this framework then, that the black response to racism in Exhibit B is called “illegitimate and irrational”. By white folk calling it so, it ensures that only whiteness is seen as stable and legitimate and other voices simply do not match up.
So here again was the whitewashed discourse asserting its power over the counter-narrative by writing it off as “not legitimate”.
What astounds me is the total lack of reflection this liberal educated class displays in their inability to see how the writing off of the protest is a manifestation of this cultural hegemony. They do not read their actions as racist at all. Yet how can anyone who is non-black even presume to write off this backlash as a “missing of the point”. The assumption that because Bailey’s intentions were consciously good thus all must accept his Exhibit B unquestioningly is also dumfoundingly arrogant and patronising.
This fast became a clash of two differing lived experiences with the white side not being able to emotionally access the pain and lived experience of the black side, preferring to hysterically write off the counter-narrative as a horrifying, vicious, obtuse invective out to rob the dominant class of their right to say and do what they please while they reserve the right to continue policing “other” narratives. This, as usual, becomes a contested space with the dominant narrative asserting its God-given right over all other narratives.
But this time I think they might well be forced to back down, which could hopefully, signify the beginning of the end for the dominant discourse and its presumed authority over all. Other narratives are fighting back, claiming space and seeing right through the limitations of this arrogant monolithic white’s only claim on reality.