Shutdown of Exhibit B has thrust anxieties about racism to the fore – the debate must go on

The hidden Curiosity Cabinets of European racism. Ada Nieuwendijk

Exhibit B was a live performance staged by non-professional black actors that has been touring around Europe. These actors were “displayed” in a series of 13 “tableaux vivants” that recall the troubling history of human zoos. These were integral to the British and French imperial expositions of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was intended as a critique of European racism and its pernicious effects on contemporary society. But an online petition to “withdraw the racist exhibition” gained the support of nearly 23,000 signatories, forcing the Barbican to cancel it.

The closure of Exhibit B offers an instance in which society’s embedded anxieties about racism have been suddenly and spectacularly brought to the fore. It forces us to ask who speaks, and who is allowed to speak, for the past: Bailey’s art is deemed illegitimate precisely because he is a white South African man. Critics accuse Bailey of reinforcing racial stereotypes through what Sara Myers, who lead the campaign against the show, terms a “vanity project”.

In response to this, the artist states that his goal was “never hatred, never fear, never prejudice”. Rather, he aimed to throw a critical light on modern-day forms of racism through an interactive, immersive and emotional display of racial prejudice.

The frames in which each of the “exhibits” were placed are of paramount important. Bailey hasn’t simply mimicked the display “objects” of the colonial past by “portraying ‘the native in his natural surrounds’ as human zoos did”. Instead, he selected objects that frame each of the performers and that were intended to communicate “the brutality subjected upon asylum seekers in the EU or inflicted upon colonial subjects”. In gazing into what the exhibition material describes as “the hidden Curiosity Cabinets of European racism”, Exhibit B set out to “turn the gaze back on Europeans”, bringing them literally face-to-face with the residual traces of the colonial and slaves pasts that are experienced in everyday contemporary life.

Within this deliberate framing, the actor’s gaze mediated the communication between the performer and the spectator. The performers’ themselves attest to the highly emotive responses of the visitors. Each actor was instructed to stare into the eyes of the onlooker, locking them into a gaze that invited conversation, as opposed to confrontation, with the intention of bringing about “a dawning of awareness” that “we are all part of a system that uses race to dehumanise”. Objectification was thus overcome by forcing the spectator to turn their gaze in upon themselves and contemplate their own role in racial stereotyping, connecting their present to the past.

And so the next question is whether it’s possible to use the tools and codes of the imperial and slave pasts (albeit subversively) without inadvertently objectifying the African body, reproducing the same prejudices that the exhibit works to overcome. Those who protested against the exhibit quite clearly considered that it was not. They interpreted it as a crude re-enactment of the past that, to quote Myers, “puts Black African people back into a space which we are superficially encouraged to believe we have been ‘freed’ from”.

This interpretation does not account for the fact that the spectator became as much a part of the performance as the actor. They were drawn into the frame through the returned gaze of performer. Yet the disconnection between what Bailey and the performers set out to achieve and its reception by parts of the black community does reveal just how deep tensions run where questions of racism are concerned and, therefore, just how far we are from overcoming the racialised mindset that has been passed down from the slave and colonial pasts.

It would appear that the subversive display of the African body triggers too many associated memories. These are far from being consigned to the past. The memories remain too painfully present to be treated in a museum-like setting where the past can be safely parodied, played with and performed.

And so ultimately Exhibit B does achieve its goal. It has highlighted the distance needed to transcend the racist ideologies that were brought into being by European modernism. Let us hope that its silencing is not also accompanied by silencing the problems of racism, and that it continues to provoke a much deeper debate about a past that remains far more present than anyone would like to admit.