The Daily mail gleefully reports. “A new art exhibition at one of Britain’s top galleries has been branded racist for using black actors dressed up as slaves.Exhibit B, by South African artist Brett Bailey, features live performers including a black man in a cage and a semi-naked woman with shackles around her neck.”
The “branding” (?) came from Sar’z Myers, a mother from Birmingham. Sar’z petitioned to “withdraw the racist ‘Exhibit -B The Human Zoo’ from showing at The Barbican 23rd – 27th September”. So far the petition has 10,000 signatures (and counting). The national press has latched on. On the petition site Sar’z says “thank you for standing with us, and standing up against racism.”.
I am disheartened at the crassness of the campaign but unsurprised at its popularity. Amongst a daily bombardment, a desert storm, of news misinformation and mismanagement this campaign harangues a singular African artist for telling the truth. And for telling it so beautifully and with such impact.
So I firmly disagree with Sar’z and her 10,000, (and counting) petitioners. Sar’z and the 10,000 petitioners (and counting) are plain wrong. I only hope the petition of 10,000 followers (and counting) brings more people to see it. Brett Bailey is a white South African artist working and living alongside black South Africans. They do not legitamise him. He does not legitamise them. That’s not the issue.
Press-send-to-protest-petitioners can watch 12 years a slave while catching popcorn in their mouths or maybe Guardians of The Galaxy without even a word. South Africans are not asking you to guard their galaxy or fight for their liberation. They are not asking you to hero worship their leaders as superhumans. They are not asking for top marks on their development.
Instead of us looking at South Africans here South Africans are looking at us. In actual fact their history is ours and they are speaking back to us too. How dare they. Brett is holding up a mirror from the past to the present and vice versa.. It’s what artists do. How are your listening and looking skills? Listening is one of the biggest signs of an anti racist. Before you press send to protest pause a moment.
full disclosure: I met Brett Bailey after performing at the slave church in Cape Town.
Since writing this blog Sar’z has contacted me and a supplement to this blog is in the comments below.