The cancellation of the Barbican show “Exhibit B” has brought out a near unanimous closing of the ranks amongst self-appointed defenders of liberal arts. Only one view is acceptable, it seems, and any diversion from this position is being derided and dismissed.
Received wisdom - judging from the stern commentaries reminding everyone to toe the line - has it that this is about censorship, a crime against free speech and the rule of the mob, and thus must be vigorously opposed.
Firstly, can we be clear and accurate about what has actually happened? Then we can argue about interpretation. The show has not been banned, nor has it been censored. The Barbican decided on its own to cancel the show after a five-week protest campaign. During this time the protest organisers corresponded and met with the Barbican board, organised a march and rally outside the Barbican Centre, raised over 20,000 petition signatures calling for the show to be reconsidered, took part in a heated public debate which was overwhelmingly in support of a rethink, and, lastly, led a peaceful protest outside the venue on the opening night, during which the show was finally cancelled.
The Barbican’s press statement claimed, “it became impossible for us to continue with the show because of the extreme nature of the protest and the serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff.” Let us return to that, because it is a masterpiece of mendacity and spinelessness.
For now, we need to discuss censorship itself. Because it is a very narrow definition that is being bandied around in the current rash of outraged articles (which, by the way, all direct their ire at the protestors rather than the institution. Nowhere have I read, “Shame on you Barbican for caving in!” which is where anyone who actually meant what they said would aim their anger.)
Any discussion of censorship is meaningless without a discussion of power. It’s not just a case of, “I should be able to say what I like in a free society!” Of course you should. But in the arts who gets to choose what gets seen and who gets to see what gets shown are vital questions that are usually overlooked. Not everyone’s ideas are given space to exist when it comes to vital questions of funding and commissioning.
This power to set the agenda and frame the debate is crucial. I can imagine, argumentum ad absurdum, a ruthless dictatorship that permitted free speech for the ruling classes. A civil protest tries to shut down a show patronised by the rich that pokes sadistic fun at the misery of the poor. Outrage ensues - “an attack on free speech! The values of our free society are under threat!” Alternatively, would anyone now genuinely try to defend a show in, say, Nazi Germany, that portrayed Jews in an unsavoury light on the grounds of free speech?
Predictably, amongst the outraged commentaries there have been several disingenuous references to the Holocaust and to films such as Schindler’s List - the implication being that “Jewish people can handle talking about their collective trauma, get over yourselves Black people!”
Can anyone seriously imagine the Barbican commissioning a show that had live Jewish actors in striped pajamas reenacting scenes from Auschwitz? All lying naked in a pile inside a gas chamber, for example? Directed by a German gentile? (“What? How can you make reference to his ethnicity! It makes no difference to the work!”)
*(Interestingly, Jewish people did react, and quite strenuously, to the Tricycle Theatre’s recent request that the forthcoming Jewish Film Festival decline from receiving funding from the Israeli Embassy in light of the ongoing civilian massacres in Gaza. Despite the theatre’s offer of replacing the funding themselves the festival organisers decided to pull out completely. This was then portrayed as anti-semitic censorship and utterly condemned by Zionist writers at the Guardian and other bastions of the liberal arts establishment. The Theatre was forced to climb down. Such is the neoliberal hall of mirrors we live in today: every act can be deconstructed and even genuine acts of political commitment can be recast and vilified as censorship.)
Aside from the degrading humiliation on display, the key issue that protestors had with this show was that it was yet another example of the wearyingly familiar, singular story of Black victimisation, Black suffering and Black pain. It is a selective and outdated narrative and we are tired of it. London is one of the most diverse cities in the world and one that is at the leading edge of thinking about race. That is precisely why this show couldn’t go on here. It might appear novel to be reminded of Black suffering in Amsterdam (where they still have the blackface Zwarte Piet tradition, which continues despite widespread condemnation) but we don’t need to see Black people in cages in order for Whites to learn about racism here in London, thank you very much.
Brett Bailey claims he sought to challenge perceptions and inspire debate about racism and the ‘objectification’ of human beings, not to simply shock or offend. But the delicious irony is that the issues the show raised are much bigger and more potent than he could ever have imagined. The shock has been his own at the size and passion of the protest and the show’s cancellation. The challenge has been to the institutional White privilege of the UK arts establishment, and the inspiration has come from Black (and White) people who have been moved to make their voices heard and claim back a just little bit of public space from the ongoing dominant racist hegemony that is the institutional White gaze.
The only thing that has been censored - by the liberal arts establishment and all who cry foul and speak of the dangers of censorship - is the necessary debate about race, representation, access, power and privilege. No-one has mentioned these issues in all the spluttering, offended commentaries. If Bailey genuinely wanted to provoke a discussion about these matters then he got one - it’s just not how he imagined and is more unexpectedly volatile than he anticipated. The protest is now as much a part of the artwork as the artwork itself. Your show was unwittingly successful, Brett! The people have spoken! Now, you speak truth to power and let’s have that discussion you claim you wanted to inspire.
Yet instead of engaging with the issues his art raises Bailey hides behind wounded articles about free speech and makes statements such as this: “I shudder to think that an artwork made in love against the hate of racism could spark a violent riot.” (Mail and Guardian SA 27/09/14)
Liberal Whites may fall for that faux bullshit but most intelligent Blacks can see right through it - demonising us as a violent mob whilst also presenting yourself as oh-so feeling and anti-racist? You predictable snake…
Bailey, the Barbican, and all the commenters are just further proving how arrogant and out-of-touch they are in being unable to face an authentic discussion of White privilege. God forbid that they should examine themselves! Instead they are finding comfort in familiar stereotypes about angry mobs of bullying Black people who presented a “serious threat to the safety of performers, audiences and staff.” Shame on the Barbican for this cowardly and convenient cover for their climb down, not to mention the missed opportunity for opening up dialogue for learning and exchange to ensure that future programming actually attends to the needs of a diverse 21st century audience, not just its racially monotone elite.
Exhibit B should never have been commissioned in the first place. It was withdrawn because the Barbican totally underestimated the strength of feeling and commitment to action of the protestors and got cold feet about going ahead with the show. It has camouflaged its humiliating climb down by slinging mud at the protestors and invoking familiar racist tropes about people feeling “threatened” by angry Blacks. All the liberal commenters have fallen into line and are repeating the mantra that this is all about free speech and censorship. Tellingly, instead of attacking the institution (which should be there to defend free speech and would have the full support of the police force if needed) they are attacking the protestors (none of whom were arrested, stopped, cautioned or in any way hauled up by the police), calling us “bullies” (Catherine Bennet in the Guardian), “stupid” (Terence Blacker in the Independent), likening our protest to the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini (Tiffany Jenkins in the Scotsman), accusing us of “intimidation, force…violence” (Index on Censorship), and dismissing us as “a few loud-mouthed people” (Bailey himself, despite 20,000+ signatures on the petition).
The only thing being censored here is the necessary debate about White privilege. I fear that the institutional powers that could make this happen would find that conversation too challenging and too uncomfortable for it to ever take place.
Eternally inspired by the photographs of iconic Malian photographer Seydou Keita.
By Prisco III
Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Dedicated to the Cultural Preservation of the African Aesthetic
I have had reviews in the past that have accused me of not writing about white people. I remember a review of “Sula” in which the reviewer said this is all well and good but one day she, meaning me, will have to face up to the real responsibility and get mature and write about the real confrontation for Black people which is white people. As though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.
The people who helped me most arrive at that kind of language were African writers – Chinua Achebe, Bessie Head. Those writers who could assume the centrality of their race because they were African. And they didn’t explain anything to white people. Those questions were incomprehensible to them. But when I read the poetry of Césaire or the poetry of Senghor, the novels particularly – “Things Fall Apart” was more important to me than anything only because there was a language, there was a posture, there were the parameters. I could step in now and I didn’t have to be consumed by or concerned by the white gaze."
J.D.’Okhai Ojeikere - Untitled, Circa 1959
Patrick Willocq: On the road from Bikoro to Bokonda (Western DRC)
Black Girls Rock: Twin Dancers Are Accepted to American Ballet Theatre’s Prestigious Summer Program
Twin sisters Nia and Imani Lindsay have been accepted into the prestigious American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) Summer Program on scholarship. The young girls have been walking since 8 months and have been dancing ever since. At 10-years old the two are trained in jazz, ballet, contemporary, hip-hop, and tap dance. They are also fluent in English, Spanish and French.
While they reside in Canada they made a trip to New York City to audition for ABT’s Summer Intensive program and found time to sit down with Cipriana of Urban Bush Babes to discuss their big news, bullying, their beautiful natural hair and why they love Misty Copeland: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ply4Rjz_UZM
Edward Burra Zoot Suits (1948)
Zak Ove - Speaker People
Unpacking Blackness in Mexico’s Costa Chica