Exhibit B

Here’s my take on the Exhibit B furore that has been going on at the Barbican.

  • I recognise that art is the exemplary expression of the stunning multiplicity of human experience.
  • I recognise that slavery and colonialism is everyone’s history and that everyone should be ethically and politically invested in critically attending to its contemporary manifestations especially in terms of racism, visceral and structural.
  • I recognise that the issues implicated in Exhibit B are difficult and complicated, and that you could be black, critical, and still support the exhibit without being a sell-out to white supremacy.
  • I have also supported and celebrated what are on the face of it similar installments such as Teresa María Díaz Nerio’s Hommage à Sara Bartman which critically engages with one of the  “original” and most heinous “human zoos” of colonial rule.

So why do I firmly support in principle (if not in every point expressed) the opposition to Exhibit B articulated by Kehinde Andrews, Akala, Sarah Myers and others?

The core issue, for me, is about the structural power of representation, that is, who enjoys the institutional support through which they can, on the public stage, represent racial experiences, especially in terms of oppression and dehumanization.

In the UK this issue of representational power is especially crucial to grapple with because its art industry is not just hegemonically white in terms of ownership, directorship and funding but has got even more white in these regards over the last number of years, especially after efforts to create a self-directed Black arts world were largely defeated in the 1990s. Where, we might ask, is the vibrant Black arts world in a multicultural UK? I do not mean individual artists – there are many fine Black artists of all kinds. But I mean an arts world that is able to direct itself and can set its own agendas including its own disagreements?

It is a suprious argument to say that the personal background of the curator or director – i.e. his race, colour, gender, sexuality, nationality, class  and the combination of all these elements – is of no importance. After all, isn’t  the very purpose of Exhibit B to personalise the experience of the audience in order to sensitise them to issues of racism and colonialism? For that to work, it must mean that who you are and what lived experiences you bring are crucial ingredients to the succesful cultivation of this particular piece of art.

Two provocations are therefore forthcoming.

First, I support  Nerio’s Hommage and not  Bailey’s Exhibit because Nerio is a Black artist who is directing, setting the agenda and performing a critique of the racial gaze on African women. This is a different kind of power that is implicated in artistic critique to that exercised by Bailey, regardless of whether or not Bailey is sincere in his endeavours, which I take as for granted that he is. This is not to say, of course, that you couldn’t critique Nerio’s  Hommage; but the point is that you couldn’t critique it on the basis that it shared an equivalence with Bailey’s Exhibit: different executions of power are at play.

So, second, let’s cut to the chase: Exhibit B is an instillation that is addressed to white people. It is trying to conscientize white people – as white people – to their (often unconscious) complicity in systems (often global) of segregation, oppression and dehumanization. Very much like 12 Years a Slave, it is designed to first and foremost edify white people as to the deep wounds of racism and colonialism. I seriously cannot see how either Exhibit B or 12 Years a Slave was designed to edify the majority of peoples of African heritage at an existential level – that is, in terms of providing a bodily shock that reveals complicity in the same violence that shocks you. You might say that on occassion Exhibit B could even shock Black people in this way. Ok, but then I would ask you, in all honestly, do you think that these pieces of art are designed to gain their aesthetic and moneterary value primarily by shocking black bodies – or white bodies? And let’s also remember, Exhibit B is not being exhibted at the Black Cultural Archives, for example, but at the Barbican – a heartland of the British arts establishment.

And this is precisely my main problem with the Exhibit: who pays the price for white people educating white people about racism?

Chinua Achebe made this point perfectly, some years ago, in an interview with Caryl Phillips about why the celebrated Nigerian writer thought that Joseph Conrad’s “postcolonial” masterpiece, Heart of Darkness, (the book that inspired in part the film Apocalypse Now), was a piece of racism.

Phillips could not understand why Achebe could not see that Conrad’s book was a critique of European colonialism rather than a support of it. Phillips protested to Achebe that Conrad did not paint the African continent as primordially dark; his point, precisely, was to show that Europeans brought that darkness with them.

But Achebe replies that this critique or expose misses the point: this is NOT where Conrad’s exercise of racial privilige lies. Rather, the fundamental point, says Achebe, is that:

 you cannot compromise my humanity in order that you explore your own ambiguity. I cannot accept that. My humanity is not to be debated, nor is it to be used simply to illustrate European problems.”

And that:

I expect a great artist, a man who has explored, a man who is interested in Africa, not to make life more difficult for us. Why do this? Why make our lives more difficult? In this sense Conrad is a disappointment.”

This is why I think that the opposition to Exhibit B is so important. It has raised the fundamental question: who is setting the agenda for whose healing at whose cost?

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7 Responses to Exhibit B

  1. Pingback: Morons Of London. | nickfuckinggill

  2. If ExhibitB is a re-enactment and an exorcism for the purpose of shifting meaning and elevate spirits then it can only be completed and probably effective if it should ‘force’ audience participation along the lines of the good old reflexes from that era. As it apparently stands, just half of the re-enactment may ring ‘true’ and the Barbican is by far the worst place in London to ask the descendants of the bourgeoisie what they used to find ‘entertaining’ and ‘what they were thinking’ !

    Strange enough though, after so many years of ‘black issues’ at the top of London arts mainstream, still a number of black figures are not happy with ‘the guilty conscience offerings’ concocted by mainstream white agenda – and probably rightly so. As repeatedly seen – registering with the mainstream doesn’t make for good ‘black art’ but for white politics and human circus. And there’s a big lesson in that for a BME such as myself, who as a group still crave and still fail to register in the mainstream, unless to be demonised by the political establishment.

    I would ask the guy here… why so many blacks such as himself crave the mainstream? that drips a lot from this piece above.. Yet ultimately such ‘limited’ privilege breeds complacency. Has black culture so easily forgotten that it was more fecund in the underground?…

    For the sake or sarcasm and since I might pass as white too, one can argue that at least a ‘recent’ African dictator kept a far worse human menagerie (Idi Amin) – so ExhibitB is by in some respect benign and can be called art!

  3. Pingback: Our History Is Richer Than Human Zoos and Enslavement | Media Diversified

  4. Just two words. Thank you.

  5. Meshack. says:

    Interesting article. So Black people shouldn’t be allowed to direct white people theatre because they have no frame of cultural or political reference for doing so and will never understand the essence of what it really is to be white? Is that what you’re saying?

  6. ritesreader says:

    So many ‘intersects’ run both within this piece as well as the exhibition and the responses the exhibition has elicited.
    So difficult to tease through them…
    One area of importance to me is that we act as if we don’t feel that we can define ‘ART’ for ourselves, along the lines of our own traditions and ethics, and that we appear to have been to accept that ‘art’ is really different from ‘science’ or any other artificially segregated concept!
    Are we followers of Descartes, or whomsoever it was who made this distinction.

    Protest is good in that it affirms we can collaborate to challenge received wisdoms, but we should be prepared also to challenge more of these, more deeply and more often…in fact our lives could more frequently represent that challenge to the mainstream, which, unfortunately is less than often the case.

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