When human brutality becomes art

If I said that a German artist was about to stage an exhibition using Jewish people as live models to recreate scenes from the Holocaust, I am sure even the thought would be abhorrent to most ordinary folk.

Protests in Holborn

I am also confident that the thought would never be attempted or accepted as a work of art. And yet if we swap the German artist for a White South African and replace the Jews with Black people, that is exactly what is about to happen in London in 2014, thanks to the Barbican Centre.

The artist is Brett Bailey – a man who has never shied away from portraying the brutality Black people endured under oppression as art.

Exhibits include a bare-chested Black woman donning a metal dog collar in a bedroom scene. The depiction harking back to the sexual enslavement of African women who were kidnapped, starved and then raped in exchange for food by their colonial masters.

Human Zoo

The exhibition has been likened to the human zoos and travelling circuses of the 19th and 20th century that placed Africans, Native Americans and Aborigines as spectacles for those in the West to ogle at. Most famously, Congo’s son Ota Benga – a Mbuti Pygmy – was featured in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Missouri in 1904.

In 1906, he was part of the monkey house exhibition at the Bronx Zoo. Ironically, this happened after he was rescued from slavers by explorer and business Samuel Phillips Verner.

And there is Saartjie Baartman, from the Khoikhoi tribe who was taken from South Africa. She toured London and Paris from 1810 feeding the fascination Europeans of that time had with Black inferiority, the sexualisation of Black bodies and eugenics.

When Baartman died in 1815, her skeleton, brain, and genitals were displayed in the Musee de L’Homme in Paris and were only removed in 1974. It took two further years before her body cast was removed from view.

I visited the very same museum years ago and remember seeing an installation of an Aboriginal family complete with a house in the background. The installation was a copy of the real life people that had been put on display.

Modern-day manipulation?

A couple of hundred years later and I have yet to find anyone who can convincingly explain to me how Bailey’s showcase is any different. The performers, who were on display at the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) over the summer of 2014, believe otherwise.

In the Guardian’s 5 September article entitled ‘Exhibit B: is the ‘human zoo’ racist?‘, we read the testimonials of some of these individuals. Some say that the experience was a chance for them to teach others, that it was healing, and at no point during the whole experience did they feel coerced.

This may be the case for these performers, but as campaigns press officer and activist Zita Holbourne pointed out, some of the past performers have been vulnerable. Asylum seekers with limited access to earning money have been linked to the exhibition. Others have said they were not fully aware of what  they were doing but when they did, pulled out.

It was even reported in the Guardian’s 12 September 2014 issue that when the exhibition ran in Poland, one of the performers received disparaging comments from onlookers about her breasts. It turns out that onlookers had not realised that the performers, who are trained to remain perfectly still throughout the exhibition, were in fact real.

Bailey has reportedly said that his art subverts the racism suffered by African people. The Barbican also told campaigners that if they went along to the show, they would be empowered and educated, Holbourne recounted to the audience outside the Barbican.

“How on earth do these people in here (the Barbican) believe that we who live with everyday racism with institutional racism, with the legacy of of historical racism can be educated by seeing Black people in cages, in chains with metal masks on their faces…..and yes….. Black people blacked up,” she asked.

Many have even questioned Bailey’s motives of wanting to educate the nation if the entry fee is £20 per head. And if you really want to show the absurdness of racism wouldn’t it be more compelling to show a scenario where those with the power in today’s society are caged and chain instead, Holbourne asked.

I must add that around 750 people have bought tickets and the event has already sold out, according to fellow activist Paul Lawrence – begging the question who would want to see that?

It has been reported that at Bailey’s first spectacle – ‘Exhibit A’ – in Berlin, the 45 minute slot set aside for audience’s questions was not enough to quell the outrage that some felt on the day!!

Speaking out

And that is why I am glad to say that campaigns, such as that led by Sara Myers, exist to prevent this type of spectacle from going ahead unchallenged.

I first heard about the campaign through Change.org,  a Facebook friend and after reading a moving blog by artist Selina Thompson who attended the EIF exhibition reported in the Guardian above. Her account flies in the face of the performers, for one, but the more I read about the contents of the exhibition the more disturbed, sickened and saddened I became.

I have never attended a march before or signalled my outrage in such a direct and vocal manner. But this subject has got under my skin so much so that mumbling under my breath and moaning to friends just didn’t cut it.

At the time of writing this blog (15 September 2014), more than 21,000 individuals had signed the petition. But when you include organisations such as Unite, Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARACK UK) and Operation Black Vote – to name but a few – the numbers are nearer one million, Holbourne said.

Ordinary folk cutting across the racial, religious and political spectrum came together on Saturday 13 September. Led by petition author Sara Myers and supported by a plethora of trade and social activist unions, we all marched towards the Barbican Centre from Moorgate Station to hand the document in to the Barbican board.

It seemed fitting that so many Black people dressed in Kente, Ankara, tie and dye and wearing African-inspired symbols were congregating outside an area of London that had been linked to a grown community of Black people hundreds of years earlier.

Talking drum

The march to the Barbican was uplifting, flanked by banners from Unite and BARACK UK and swept up by the drumming and chant “Barbican, Barbican, shame on you,  we don’t want no human zoo”. We stopped passing traffic and even brought workers out from their buildings.

The march reached a crescendo outside the Barbican, drums beating, whistles and horns ringing out and above that our chants. We paid homage by pouring libations to warrior ancestors such as Ghana’s Queen Mother of Ejisu Yaa Asantewaa, Queen Nzinga of modern-day Angola, Harriet Tubman, Dr Martin Luther King, and Marcus Garvey, and heard rallying speeches from activists from across London and Birmingham. Here’s a flavour of what I experienced here.


For me, the most powerful messages I took away from the experience was about respecting and honouring ourselves. It is about telling our own story, creating our own art and highlighting that as much as our ancestors suffered in the African Holocaust, they also fought back.

And this fight is far from over. The Barbican have reportedly refused to cancel the exhibition, which starts on 23 September and reneged on the agreement to ensure a senior board member would receive the petition on Saturday. Myers told me that the campaign team was told to hand the document to one  of the members of security instead!!!

Bailey already has designs on staging an Exhibit C and plans to take his spectacle to a wider audience. But Lee Jasper, co chair of BARAC UK is unperturbed.

“We’ve had huge support on line I don’t think it is indicative of the strength of the campaign, I think we have more to come.

“We have already alerted our friends in the United States, Australia, Latin America and on the African continent, wherever he (Bailey) puts out this exhibition, he is going to be met with the same level of opposition.”

Trevor Phillips

On the issue of whether human suffering can ever be called art, Jasper recounted the reaction of Barbican board member Trevor Phillips, who was the former head of the Commission for Racial Equality.

When Jasper posited the question of whether it was ever acceptable to stage an exhibit of Jewish Holocaust victims by a German artist, Phillips “went hysterical in the meeting and he did so because it hit that nerve,” Jasper said.

According to Jasper, Phillips – whose parents are from British Guiana – said such a concept was outrageous.

“But I’m sorry, it is not outrageous,” said Jasper. “That’s a pertinent and poignant point that demonstrates how people feel they can trample, violate and access our culture anytime without consequence.”

For Myers, Saturday’s rally has been significant in highlighting the strength of unity and community spirit.

“We have to stand up and say this is not acceptable and how we do this is by coming out and signing the petition, sharing it , making the public aware, it’s not about publicising him, it’s about our collective voice.”

To signal your support for the Boycott The Human Zoo campaign sign the petition here or follow its progress on Facebook and Twitter. By Kirsty Osei-Bempong

* Since writing this piece, and thanks to everyone’s support, the exhibition was never shown in London. But this fight does not end as the artist has more exhibits planned across Europe and the US.*

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