Press send to protest: Brett Bailey breaks bars at The Barbican.


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.


8 thoughts on “Press send to protest: Brett Bailey breaks bars at The Barbican.

  1. I saw Exhibit A in Grahamstown 2 years ago. It conjured up an incredible mixture of horror and wonder and despair and hope. My wife was left sobbing afterwards, it was such a powerful statement. I haven’t stopped talking about it since. The only way to improve the future is to confront the demons of the past. It had real effect on me. Everybody should go and see this exhibition.

  2. I hadn’t heard of Brett Bailey til I was looking at the Barbican’s website and saw the ad for his staging of Verdi’s Macbeth, which is set in the Congo! Now that is daring and imaginative, it’ll make the tragedy come alive and being it right into the modern day.

    Another “contraversial” Opera director did a similar thing with a piece by Handel and he’d set it in a brutalist modern state and carried out the execution scene/s so powerfully (with the victims strapped down, arms splayed on two supports, arms strapped and tornacayed then as the lethal injection is administered the platforms the victims are itied to slowly tips up until fully perpendicular the outstrechted arms & body forming a cross) gasps and sounds of anguish, some people left the auditorium, one person fainted, another threw up. Complaints followed!

    My feeling is that we have to confront things, things we do as a species, which is hard to take, the levels of brutality and subjugation are demoralising, but if we pretend it’s all over then we are living in fairy land, we have to face who we are collectively, keep asking questions, and when old worlds and new collide or merge we are forced to do just that, to take a reality check, and that can be stark.

    Whether it’s art or not is another matter, the point is he is pushing boundaries and trying to tear down walls, that makes him scarey to those of us that want to look away.

    • Thanks Rhiannon. Our past is manipulated daily by news media. We need artists to challenge it. My definition of art is simply this: If an artist calls it art then it is art.

  3. Supplement to Blog: “I want my children to grow up in a world where the barbaric things that happened to their ancestors are a thing of the past. We have come a long way since the days of the grotesque human zoo – we should not be taking steps back now.” (Sar’z Meyers – campaign leader.)

    We all want our children to grow up in a world where the barbaric things that happened are a thing of the past. But are they a thing of the past? Black men are dying at the hands of the state police in England and America.

    Sar’z continues

    “If Brett Bailey is trying to make a point about slavery this is not the way to do it. The irony gets lost and it’s not long before the people behind the cage begin to feel like animals trapped in a zoo. “

    Sar’z acknowledges that Bailey may be trying to make a point about slavery . And then Sar’z calls for the exhibition to be banned before it’s even opened in London. She reaches a declamatory peak

    “Please join me in calling on the Barbican to withdraw the racist Exhibition”.

    The first place Brett bailey showed Exhibit B is in South Africa. Sar’z is wrong headed. I sympathize with her misdirected anger. She has since removed last nights offensive tweet to me. “take your thirty pieces of silver” she said.

    Sar’z nobody is paying me to write this. Children should see this exhibition. maybe there should be a kindergarden (childs play area) in a cage as part of the exhibition. Brett Bailey’s piece should be front and centre of our present consciousness. Let us make the links. You are entitled to make yours too.

    I believe that you believe from the bottom of your heart that you are right. When you start to ban art you become part of the problem. Think as a free person and let freedom ring. Don’t smash the bell because it’s too loud. let it ring. let it ring. Let it ring.

  4. I saw this exhibition in Edinburgh and was profoundly moved. I felt unable to leave a comment because the work expressed my horror more eloquently than I ever could. The personal statements of the ‘performers’ were also very moving.
    I spent part of my childhood in East Africa in the early 60’s and it brought home the attitudes that were taken for granted even, as late as that.
    This work is not just a startling work of art; it is a compelling contribution to understanding our shared history. It should be compulsory viewing

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