Clear as Black and White. Two Reasons Exhibit B Must be Banned (or Not)


Sara Myers ( or Sar’z Myers)  has petitioned to ban Exhibit-B from The Barbican because, she says, it is “an exercise in white racial privilege”.  At time of writing Myers has 15,000 press-to-send-protestors: much as I predicted.  Akala, the poet and artist,  agrees with Myers.  But take a look at other comparable “exercises in white privilege” – her words – and the “masturbation of white guilt” – his words. (I provide links).

Roots was produced by Stan Marguiles. Walter Mirisch produced In The Heat of The Night. Brad Pitt co-produced 12 years a Slave. Len Blavatnik was executive producer of The Butler. Quentin Tarrantino directed Django Unchained. Scott Rudin produced The Book of Mormon.

I offer  two reasons why Myers  and the 15,000 petitioners (and counting) are wrong headed in wanting to ban Exhibit B. Here’s the first. The story of slavery is part of the collective consciousness of humanity like the story of space travel or the downfall of communism or the Jewish holocaust? It must be told by all and remembered by all. That’s the first reason Exhibit-B must not be banned.  If it’s banned  on the basis the story is transmitted through a “white” person or that “white” people will see it then Akala and Sar’z must do the same for any and all  slave narrative, produced, written, directed, or shown by any  “white ” person.

Here’s the second reason Exhibit-B should not be banned by them:   In the mere handful of examples above black actors of great standing and integrity are front and centre: Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman, Forest Whittaker, Sydney Poitier, Cuba Gooding Junior, Mariah Carey. Their own families suffered the stories they portray.

Hanged, shot, raped, burned, buried alive, made servile and humiliated: It is exactly the same acting as  by The great black South Africans in Brett Bailey’s Exhibit-B.  Can you not see them. And yes “white” people and black watch the drama of slavery unfold.It’s  a story  every part of every generation should retell.  What wisdom and strength is in these actors to portray these stories so incredibly well?   (Jeez if I could only get past the version of anger broadcast by Myers and Akala I could get them to see the facts.)

This is my second reason the exhibition should not be banned.  In Myers world and Akala’s  these great black men and women – the actors – are not to be heard.  It’s what incenses me most about the campaign. It makes a definite choice to ignore the black South Africans as if they are dumb slaves to a  pathetic display of radical exhibitionism.   To dismiss the articulate skilled and emotional voices of the South African actors  is an insult but to call to ban Exhibit B is arrogance of despotic proportions  and that affects me – Damn it.


19 thoughts on “Clear as Black and White. Two Reasons Exhibit B Must be Banned (or Not)

  1. It is too easy to press send to protest. But it should serve to tell us alot about the protestor. Like the one who messages below Akala’s article. He says gleefully “it only takes 40 seconds”. Akala is no radical and neither Sara Myers. I am no liberal either. These binary fixations are a way of controlling ideas and people whose only revolution is to eventually turn full circle. No doubt Boris Johnson the Mayor of London will join their campaign as soon as it passes a pre-determined number. A little light will flash on his desk. Grrrr.

  2. thanks for your considered response and being articulate where some are reactionary..this is the only way to break racism.i will not see the exhibit..too far away, but i have all my sisters and cousins in south africa and they too are upset at the thought that this exhibit could be actually censored..they work hard at healing the rifts of the apartheid legacy..we are, as you say ,all involved

  3. That’s a brilliant line!

    “These binary functions are a way of controlling ideas and people whose only revolution is to eventually turn full circle”

    That’s beautiful, and how it hurts. It sums up so much about Reactive thought/behavoiur. That’s me, that’s most of us isn’t it? Conditioned to to fear one another and to seek comfort and safety rather than truth.

    • Your right in saying “that’s most of us isn’t it”. We are conditioned to fear one another and conditioned to seek comfort and safety rather than truth. Certain types of anger are very seductive in the way you describe.

  4. Hi Lemn, thank you for this article. It is a coincidence that I came across it just when I was thinking of asking you if you had seen the work. I am trying to write my own view on it because I cannot understand how anyone can see one of the most powerful statements of racialism in contemporary art as racist! Thank you for your voice, as always incisive and honest.

  5. As one of the c.18,000+ people who signed Sara (Sar’z) Myers’ petition, I have reflected very carefully about my stance – which has involved a lengthy process of aligning and appraising the information read (and previewed online) about ‘Exhibit B’ alongside prior research already undertaken over the years exploring the history (& historiography) of western exhibiting practices (esp. in relation to 19th century Euro-American ‘World’s Fairs/Colonial Expositions’ and (so called) ‘Human Zoos’) – and I still made the decision to be a signatory. Like you, I have documented all the reasons why I feel Brett Bailey’s project is racist in a blog post – including a counter-narrative to your point about the participants, who are not categorised as “dumb” ( ), …And I would go further to suggest that if Brett Bailey had researched the literature that already exists about the consumption of racist imagery, as well as wider discourses on critical ‘race’ theory, sociologies of ‘race’, racilisation and racism, and ‘curating difficult knowledge’ (esp. written by scholars of African descent such as Coco Fusco, Prof. Leigh Railford, Dr David Pilgrim, et al.), or consulted extensively (and at length) with black-led anti-racist educational organisations that have already been involved for a long time in developing appropriate teaching and learning pedagogies for diverse audiences in order to sensitively curate exhibitions addressing the historical traumas and contemporary legacies of colonial violence (e.g. Lilian Thuram Foundation – working in partnership with ACHAC and the Quai Branly Museum, etc. – on the development of the Paris exhibition ‘Human Zoos/Zoos Humains: L’invention du sauvage’ (2012)) he would not have pursued the ‘Exhibit B’ project in this way. Moreover, recruiting black actors through NITRO is not what I would call sufficient and informed consultation – as the project was already presented to them as a ‘fait accompli’. I don’t care if the conceptualisation of a theatre arts/exhibition project purporting to be about anti-racism is transmitted by a white person, what I care about are the competencies and sensitivities of the person (or people) handling this complex history, and their ability to empathetically connote the associated lived experiences of contemporary racisms. I’m afraid that Brett Bailey has already been found wanting on all such counts.

  6. Carol, My black American Friend says when the uninformed inform the uninformed it is “n***ernomics: the economy and comedy of erroneous protest”. I disagree with her. I prefer to think of it as Bob Marley did – Mental Slavery.

    The woman who commented before you (see above) is Elinor Sisulu. Elinor is the daughter in law of Walter Sisulu who spent more than twenty five years imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.

    • Like Lee I find it interesting that you didn’t address any of the issues detailed in my response to your post. Your inclusion of the ‘N’-word, the Sisulu name-check, and your subsequent (quite lengthy) response to (the high-profile, male, anti-racist activist) Lee Jasper speak volumes…and indicate to me (as well as others) that my intervention within this space was dismissed. Informed debate continues to be welcomed on my blog, where I have posted two further commentaries on the boycott of ‘Exhibit B’ :

  7. I think you make some good points worth debating. I do however disagree with your comments and Ill explain why. I also think that you should respond to Carol points above many of her points I agree with and which seemed to be dismissed. I shan’t repeat them but they are very pertinent.

    Im also concerned at your portrayal of Sara and Akala, as ‘angry broadcasters’. Such portrayals are unfair and potential quite dangerous given the power of racial stereotypes.

    1. We are calling for a boycott not a ban. In a free market democracy exercising such economic power as we have , is a traditional strategy employed by the struggle for race equality. We asking the Barbican not to put on the show and we asking people not to go and watch it. This is no exercise in book burning.

    2. Whilst there are many African diasporas and there are no shared global definitions of racism. Of course as a global concept, racism is a general concept that contains within to, a set of fundamental characteristics However each nation, people and histories determine the nature of specific racisms, defined by particular histories and geographies.

    Whatever the views of South Africans or African Americans such experiences can not provide a hegemonic overarching global definition of the problem of racism or the determine the priorities of particular anti racist strategies, here in Britain. We take what works and discard what does not.

    Simply having African Actors does not negate our criticisms, in the same way black police officers do not negate our criticisms of the police. Racisms are particular informed by power, history, geography, what seems a possible solution in one corner of the world does not necessarily translate as an effective strategy elsewhere.

    I think that Brett Bailey is guilty of exercising neoliberal white privilege offering a naive voyeurism from a pain pornographer, exploiting Africans actors, uniformed of UK struggle against domestic racism, to provide perfect cover for his slave safari into our unacknowledged history, grandstanding tokenism in the name of art.

    3.You say that the story of our period of enslavement is a universal story such as the holocaust and space travel etc. Some historical narratives are more contested than others, some are rejected and some nations suffer historical amnesia in an effort to rewrite history. Slavery is the most contested of these histories and whilst slavery as a fact of history, is a universal narrative of our common human history, however as we all know, only ‘half our story has ever been told’ These are not comparable histories that can be viewed through the same ‘artistic lens’ We are all still, as a people, engaged in the process of seeking to have our story told, accepted and out legacy fully explored and accepted ad universal. It becomes extraordinary difficult to view artistic contributions to understanding the power dynamic of racism in art outside the context in which it is produced. I don’t blame African actors for taking a job in the exhibition but both the actors and a white artist intending a controversial work on an issue of challenging racism, should, as matter of principle and ensuring an ethical approach, at minimum should seek to engage with diaspora in those countries in which they intend to show this work as a point of solidarity, anti racist principle and anti racist ethics.

    Just a few thoughts hopefully contributing toward a constructive debate.

    • Lee you proffer I should “respond to Carol’s points” and that by not doing so I “dismiss” them. I have responded by publishing them. This is acknowledgement. And I have responded in the way I felt appropriate. I’m not picking through each and every piece of research she presents neither am I saying they are not appropriate to her opinion. I disagree with the premise of her argument that this exhibition should be banned.

      I nearly fell off my chair when you wrote “I’m also concerned at your portrayal of Sara and Akala, as ‘angry broadcasters’. Such portrayals are unfair and potential quite dangerous given the power of racial stereotypes.”.

      Your concern is recorded. Your fire must be stoked that I woiuld do such a thing. But you have the right to do that – stoke the fire that isn’t there I mean. You are time served in this area and you know precisely the connotations of what you said there. Duly noted. I only named Akala in response to his naming me. I didn’t want to. Personally I think of anger as the beautiful expression of hope, truth and opinion. But what I highlighted was a “version of anger”. You are concerned that my saying as much is “potentially dangerous stereotyping”. I say you are fanning the flames. There are over 18,000 petitioners as kindling. I have none. Mine is simply a point of view.

      All the words you expound on racism and why this exhibition should be banned sound like sense. We know them well. I know them well. There’s a great article in The City Press that supports your view. It’s one of the most measured and articulate supporting pieces to your viewpoint. City Press is a newspaper in South Africa. One that I respect. As I do you. You can find it online. It came out on Sept 4th. Exhibit-B was first shown in South Africa.

      I tell you with confidence that this incredible exhibition should stay.

      Using black police officers comparable to the black actors is an interesting one. But flawed. It sounds like it makes sense doesn’t it. it ticks all the boxes. Yes the reader would say “black actors” are like “black police officers”. The reader will agree “the state is no less racist just because there is a black police officer and this exhibition is no less racist because it has black actors”. Correct. go to the top of the radical class.

      Just a note here: These actors are not defending or upholding the state. They are acting. If the police were “acting” as police officers your example would have more merit.

      As someone whose life has been tortured by racism I rise to you and raise your anti-racism with a full flush of black pride. If you don’t like the exhibition don’t go. If you ban it you start to become the thing you hate. The oppressed need learn the language of power and then share it.

      Whether it’s right or wrong I am not as concerned about anyone as much as I am about us and that is why I take this stand.

  8. Whose story is it? And how should it be told?

    ‘One half of the storyhas never been told’.

    How true, and that is the case for colonisation too, and women’s subjugation / marginalization. We are divided along lines of race and sex and as far as those who profit from such divisions are concerened it should remain that way. Slavery and colonisation are central to the global narrative, they are largely the basis for the power structures we have today, their causes and effects remain active.

    We are living in very disturbed and sorrowful times. Brutalised through the perpetuation of the arms industry, we now have millions of displaced and disenfranchised people, squalor and poverty for millions. Ordinary people are hobbled by low wages, whilst many suffer the despair of unemployment, yet living costs rise. Meanwhile corporations and bankers run amock. So, whose story is it? And how to tell it?

    When I look at photos from Exhibit B I see us. The human race, brutalised, subjugated, captive.

    Yet there is more, because each of those individuals gazes out, and their eyes are like portals into uncharttered waters. That one person has a narrative, and also represents a long lineage, all those who came before swim up through the centuries and break the surface of present linear time.. Our eyes meet and we are confronted with the question, How to be human in an inhuamane world?

  9. I do not agree with banning the show, because I believe in freedom of speech and artistic expression, no matter what. And yes, that includes the depiction of Holocaust victims with live Jews. I don’t want to see it, but that doesn’t mean that it should be banned. I do agree with boycotting, protesting, verbally attacking, critiquing and picketing the show, because the premise is in its essence racist. As a publicly funded organisation, the Barbican should be made to feel the force of public disapproval of work that is racially offensive. Some might say that you have to see the show to know this. I disagree. I have read a great deal of text about the show, enough to understand the basic premise. If the basic premise is intrinsically flawed, which I and 20,000 others maintain it is, how that premise is realised does not matter. The basic premise is to show Black people as the passive victims of White supremacist oppression with no means of expression other than their eyes, with no agency, in that they are static and forbidden to move. These Black performers (if one can even call such a passive participation performance) are posed in tableaux of which the artist states “I wanted to create images where you are seduced by beauty—you want to look—but the content is so horrific you also don’t want to look.” The artistic aim, as stated by the artist, is “to give iconic shape to some of the many ways in which Western Powers have dehumanized those that they have sought to plunder, to control, to exploit and to exclude. To dramatize the violence of a system that has debased the people on both sides of the glass of the display cases that it has erected’ So, to sum up, the artist aims to show how Black people have been disempowered by disempowering them and making it look pretty. Quite how this is supposed to empower Black people is unclear. In fact, I would suggest that it is explicitly not aimed at empowering Black people, but instead aimed at confronting White people with their guilt complex for the sins of their ancestors. So, it is a show aimed at White people, displaying Black people as powerless victims. Frankly, I am at a loss to understand how anyone familiar with the historical disempowerment and exploitation of Black bodies through the White media can view this as a sound premise.

  10. At face value, I can see how this might be seen as a work by a white man for white people, in the tradition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. If you think that is in itself a bad thing, then consider the change in white attitudes which works like Uncle Tom helped bring about. If Uncle Tom didn’t fully empower the black characters, it did humanise them for the white readers, while showing up the iniquity of the white slave owners, from the casually commercial to the sadisticly nasty. We needed a mirror.
    Do we still need a mirror, a reminder, all these years later? Bailey obviously thinks so. Does the exhibit objectify and disempower black people? Perhaps like a lot of art, you see what your prejudice leads you to see. If see a person objectified, I will tend to try to see past the picture, to work out what is actually going on with the real person. And so I’ll take away a renewed sense of outrage about the divisions and cruelties which we’ve built into societies around the world by our racism and selfishness. Is that a bad thing, to cause me to think like that?
    And about empowerment: aren’t the actors in the piece free people? If they’ve accepted this job, they probably think it’s worth doing in some way. Or perhaps critics think these actors have no artistic integrity at all. Better ask them. Has anyone done that?

  11. I want you to know that you and I have both grown up the same way, adopted or fostered by a white family. From a race point of view, I think it’s an incredibly difficult way to live and grow because there is so much to sort out on so many levels and it never seems to stop. You and I are on opposite sides of this campaign and of course, why shouldn’t we be – we are still different – made up of our own unique experiences – we are after all, individuals who do not know each other. On the other hand, I find it difficult not to feel a special something for those that have similarly walked in my transracial shoes. Not that I am in anyway suggesting you should feel the same way as I, either. Still, I’m honestly not sure whether it is ever possible to fully overcome the early agonies involved in coming to terms with having a transracial identity and is probably what compels me to write to you now. If only by shear numbers alone, it is a deeply isolating experience in a way that only you, I and other transracial people can truly comprehend. That is why I want you to know that when the campaigners, lead by Sara Myers, met you at the Barbican to discuss the human zoo just a few days ago, a number of them saw your pain. They saw your pain so deeply, they came away saying they had absolutely no stomach for making you feel worse. Instead, they expressed concern. There was no hatred or anger, just a love for you. They felt you, Lemn. I couldn’t attend that day but in response to my later suggestion that we look critically at your approach, our campaigners, both black men and women, said we should leave you alone and that if we were to do anything, we should only reach out to you. To be clear, they have not asked me to write this and it is not part of a more elaborate strategy, I promise. I just want you to understand that even in this battle where you have tended to under-estimate the beauty, care and intelligence of Sara Myers and indeed, the general campaign, these campaigners are loving and caring for you. Can you imagine how deep that is? Can you imagine? You see, they are a highly intelligent group of people who do not know how to stop feeling and fighting for the struggle and self-respect of African people which includes you, I and so many others. There is nothing else going on here. I want you know because you’re ‘my transracial people’ no matter how differently we may see the world – no matter how different we may be. So, know that you are surrounded by a love so deep, it might be beyond what you can possibly imagine. But it is there even though you may never know how to know it or indeed, how to trust it. Much love Lemn and be in peace. Marlene.

    • Dear Marlene,

      You are speaking to a fully functioning black man, an articulate human being and a knowledgeable male. It is worth considering that our stories lead us to knowledge knowledge and understanding but equally our stories can lead us to patterns of dictatorship. Which do you choose?

      You address, a british man, an english man, an african man, a spiritual man and a practical man in me. All those elements. We are multi faceted and many layered. I don’t agree with the protesters. My stance is clear and unequivocal.

      But if you feel the need to patronise my story that is your call. I should share firmly, sister, that your use of my past to further your point is similar to the use of the idea that the actors in this exhibition are actually enslaved. It’s base.

      If you wnat me to sum up for you how I feel about my storyit is thus. I am not defined by my scars but by the incredible ability to heal. You are looking at the scars and not that miraculous ability to heal. You are fixated by the inflicted and not the power of him as the healer.

      Tonight I should be on Newsnight with Sara. Unfortunately it may not be logistically possible. I am in Bradford at Bradford Literature Festival. I should thank you for thinking of me, even if your thinking is flawed. I say flawed because if you wanted to see one person who has taken his past by the balls and worked it out fiercely (and with love) it is me – this black man, this english man, this human being,this ethiopian this molecular conversation.

  12. Lemn,

    Of your question between ‘knowledge’ or ‘dictatorship’, I choose neither because sadly, life is a multitude of many things that makes it impossible to step outside of these binary propositions in the clear terms you suggest. Freedom of expression permits all of us to agree, disagree or be indifferent. It is not when one disagrees, that it becomes ‘censorship’ which is what is at risk here. An act in democracy is essential or we all die in our hearts and sense of autonomy. Consider, society already encourages a dumbing down in our critical thinking. In our campaign we were strict in our refusal to engage with violence, criminal damage or any other form of personal abuse. Instead, we used the genuineness of our hearts and the use of drums. Like words that come and go in cultural changes, so too must art only be defined through people and the meanings and relevance given to it. Unfortunately, art ought but does not have existence outside of structural power relations so it is imperative for all of us to think about the representation and role of art as well as the artistic quality of any form it purports to express. So if, in the moment, one shouts ‘racism’ that it is met with the response, no, it is ‘art’, it is legitimate to question the usage of ‘art’ as a form of censorship itself for we might also argue that art can be placed in chains of ‘elite art’, ‘contemporary art’ and so on. These were precisely the concerns of who was not so long ago, our leading cultural theorist in Stuart Hall not to mention many others. If the human zoo closes through a freedom of expression working in action – through the power of persuasion – through the right to stand-up and object or accept. If that should happen as indeed it did, then no matter what the outcome is, it is an honest reflection of that public freedom to respond. All freedoms compete with each other but the voice of the public must I hope, always be more important than the individual. Finally, I am glad you are well and forgive my assumption that you were not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *