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 artists who take part in Exhibit B are not dummys but active participants who have their own independent reasons for taking part.
- 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.
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.”
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?