Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B and The Real Human Zoo.


My identity has been questioned by those whom I oppose.    I speak from the heart of an Ethiopian man, a British man, an English man, a spiritual man and a practical man. These are the ventricles that pump blood throughout me 24 hours a day.  I thank Sara Myers and her campaigners  for the opportunity to consider my position on their flawed campaign which aims to  silence an artist. And I thank them for the opportunity to speak as one.

Myers started the campaign on  a “gut reaction” after seeing a  piece about Exhibit B  in The Guardian. Consider that you saw the corner of a picture and immediately assumed it was the entire context. Imagine you saw  Grayson Perry’s Tapestry “The adoration of cage fighters” and assumed he was making jokes about the white working class.  Imagine you then built a campaign against that artwork using your context.  People will believe and support you.

Withdraw the racist Exhibition ‘Exhibit B – The Human Zoo’ from showing at the Barbican” is the self penned headline of the letter of protest. On reading it and feeling her indignation many people clicked in support. The numbers began to rise. 10, 000 and counting. Notable “community leaders” like Akala joined the herd. 11,000, 12,000. The stampede threw up a storm of dust.  The daily mail covered the story. 13,000 The figures continued to rise. 15,000. “it only takes 40 seconds to protest” said a follower on Akala’s site  encouraging his friends. Now it stands at 20,000 and rising.   It’s a no brainer right.   Wrong.

The term Human Zoo is not in Bailey’s title it’s there via  Myers. And, her chosen website,  is faulty.  I know one journalist who entered a different name multiple times to test its veracity – all the names are still there.

But what is racist about what Myers says is a “racist exhibition”. Is it really racist to show the shocking facts of the past via theatrical installation. Jewish people don’t agree with Myers.   The holocaust  is part of public consciousness directly because gentiles and Jews alike have portrayed it in film, in art galleries, on stage and in literature –  in all its graphic detail.

Jewish people  didn’t  say Schindlers List was racist because they saw its context.  Jewish people have watched gentiles  depicting the story for years without accusing them of being racist. And art institutions have supported the holocaust narrative without being accused of institutional racism. Like The Holocaust  slavery itself has been enacted on screen in film and in plays. Does Myers see that these are all examples of literal enslavement and racism.

For many Jewish people these films and plays and exhibitions are impossible to watch. The story of The Holocaust is one they know too well. The pain is still there. But empowered by remembrance the story is part of the story of humanity now.   There is a maturity: There is a knowledge and a wisdom. And there is pain. The pain is the gut reaction which Myers felt.

We must acknowledge the pain of remembrance but also we must acknowledge  the importance of remembrance.  This respects our ancestors.   It is this maturity and vision that one must ask of young and old black and white when seeing Brett Baileys Exhibit B. If I had children I would take them to see this exhibition too.  “daddy did this really happen?” they would ask through tears “yes” I would reply. And our conversations would be elevated to why it happened and how it kinda happens today.

I am not defined by my scars but by the incredible ability to heal. And part of this healing is to know the story of oppression.  These stories must  must be told by all to all. Like the Jewish community we may not like what we see but we can understand that it must be seen. This is our strength.  It must be told  a thousand ways by a thousand generations to come.

With a flawed accusation of racism Myers has done  disservice to her self and to her cause. They have kicked up a storm and blinded themselves to the clarity of truth.   I watched  Sara Myers flounder on Newsnight tonight. I watched her speak for  “the black community” as if the black community had one point of view.  I am part of the black community and Myers does not  represent me nor many of those who have written to me.   This brings me back to the beginning of this article.

I speak with the heart of an Ethiopian man,  an English man, a spiritual man and a practical man. These are the ventricles that pump blood throughout me  24 hours a day. I thank Sara Myers and her “campaigners” for the opportunity to consider my personal position on their flawed campaign which aims to silence an artist. I thank them for this  opportunity to speak as one.   1138158_947022


27 thoughts on “Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B and The Real Human Zoo.

  1. Unfortunatly, I did not get the opportunity to see Exhibit B. Also, I like to make it aware that I am deffinatly not raciest. However, I completely disagree with Myers approach and the consequences of her actions. Without doubt slaver is very tender topic and I appreciate that. However, we all need educating of all the awful atrocities which have happened. I believe that it is better to make others and the younger generations understand what has happened in the past. Exhibit B enabled us to witness these shocking conditions without actually enslaving anyone, It’s ART! Did anyone protest about Twelve Years A Slave and ban it’s release? What was the difference? It graphically showed the brutal treatment and conditions of slavery did it not?

    Also, I am sure (well, I hope) that the actors involved were not forced to perform, they chose to participate. Why, because they are proud or their family’s that were subject to this dreadful period and the way they have fought for what they rightfully have today. We can’t ever forget the suffering involved and creating awarness will hopefully see this kind of thing never to repeat.

    I do not believe that people should not protest in a dignified and unagressive manner. I also think that the tactics used by Myers was unacceptable and should not have resulted in Exhibit B being pulled. Maybe Twelve Years A Slave should be stripped of all Oscars and all copies burnt.

  2. As a female, British descendent of: African’s, Jew’s, Irish, English & Indian and as a community artist I speak from these histories. We may or may not like, appreciate or want the reaction & action to this exhibition – but as artist’s we must except it as a valid response to work. If we are ‘lucky’ reaction to our work may allow people to view & interpret and define it in a way we had possibly envisaged. If we are not so lucky then a more extreme reaction’s may occur. We as artist cannot and should not feel that having a piece of work shut down is unfair. Especially if it is shut down because of they way it is interpreted, or the lens through which it is viewed the ‘reaction’ cannot be censored, belittled or condemned. A lot of people have chosen to concentrate on whose voice the protest spoke for… It does not matter quite frankly because a lot of voices came together and decided to produce ‘a speak as one voice’ reaction. If we need to get down to the nitty gritty a lot of different colour people signed the petition. My ‘reaction’ to this interesting happening is that artist’s, host venue’s and even producer’s such as UK Arts International should not demand that their work is viewed & interpreted in ways that ‘they’ dictate as exceptable, art is political – it is alive and the life that Exhit B has birthed is one that I hope will continue a debate about whether artist, producers or hosting venue should now widen their ideas of what free speech is – who has the right to it, who has the right to disagree with it, the value that is placed on histories & memory and whether ‘protest’ about artist’s work & right of free speech is itself an action of free speach.

  3. I agree. I think perhaps Lemm is taking it a bit too personally and is unable to see clearly because of his heated Twitter exchange with Sara Myers and their apparent dislike of each other.
    Sorry Lemm I did respect you but an artist cannot seek to control or limit how people respond to work.
    I think that the campaign was not 23,000 people trying to silence an artist but also people thinking about the institutionalised racism and lack of diversity in the arts.
    Free speech belongs to everyone Lemm, not just artists. As painful as that might be for some artists to accept. Censorship means censorship and censoring legitimate protest, petitions and campaigns is very dangerous.

    • I actually like Sara Myers. You are correct Free speech is for everyone. I posit an opinion is all. If my opinion differing from yours causes you to disrespect me then so be it. Where in fact did I say that free speech does not belong to everyone? Where did I say the petition should be censored? get a grip.

      • Yes Lemm you inferred it her when you wrote-
        “With a flawed accusation of racism Myers has done disservice to her self and to her cause.”

        IS the definition of racism solely defined by you? What she deems racism is her entitlement to freely say so, yet you have posited it flawed, thereby casting aspersions on it.

        And why attack Kristie for also voicing her free speech” What does ‘get a grip’ mean? Was that really necessary? Sounds to me you haven’t really ‘healed’ from whatever haunts your spirit matey.

        You make grand pronouncements which you can’t seem to live up to yourself. smdh

        • I said Sara Myers did “a disservice to herself and her cause”. And I fully expect those who “pressed send to protest” and the relatively few who turned up on the day must defend their actions once committed. I don’t see what I did as a “grand announcement” but seeing as you called it I’d rather make “grand announcements” that I can’t live up to than base ones that I can.

          I’m not “attacking” Kirsty. Get a grip. If you pay attention to the detail you will see that I never said I had “healed”. I said “healing”. I appreciate your comments on my erm “spirit” but when I need either a guru or a spiritual temperature taken you might not be the one I turn to?.

      • You are a lost fool. The objectification of black people is lost. And there have been worst holocaustS of Afrikan people. That European holocaust affair pales in comparison. Let them show tryglodyte Europeans in their none glory then we can have a conversation.

  4. Kristie I totally agree with you!

    For me I was bewildered that this ‘artist’ would seek to go back in history to recreate this narrative as a way of challenging racism when there are many modern day zoos, in brazil for example, they have ‘tourism of the poor’, where rich people pay to go to favelas (shanty towns/ghettos) to ogle at how poor people live, thereby reinforcing mentally how ‘nice’ their lives are

    And this is the same i feel of Bailey’s ‘art’ it actually does nothing to challenge what it claims to, rather it can serve as a pleasant reminder of ‘when some people ruled others’, thereby reinforcing these notions of ‘power’, so inadvertently, it can actually contribute to more feelings of racial superiority

    • And your opinion is clear. You have the right to it as I do mine. I guess this is going to continue isn’t it. For the record I don’t think the African artist Brett bailey need care what you think. Nor what I think. If he spent all his time thinking about what we think he wouldn’t be an artist. He’d be a politician.

  5. I think it is a grave mistake to compare the Jewish Holocaust to the African Holocaust. While there may be a few superficial similarities between the two, one ended with reparations and punishment while the latter continues as a deeply embedded institution in which non-Africans benefit the most. Name one exhibition regarding the Jewish Holocaust in which live Jewish people were put on display in gas chambers or camps. It’s different from a film in which viewers sit passively. My guess is there are no real Jewish people on display when people tour Dachau, so we can stop comparing Bailey’s farce to Jewish documentary.

  6. Lemn, I have great respect and affection for you, but you couldn’t be more wrong on this issue. Bailey isn’t the central issue here; indeed, as a white South African, he’s a pantomime villain. The real issue is the arts establishment, glorying in a grotesque perversion of art. Racist such as Bailey are ten a penny, but we cannot and will not allow them to use our bodies and histories unchallenged. Particularly with the collusion of institutions that enjoy privileged charitable status, tax subsidies and our money.

  7. I actually enjoyed reading your point of view although it is not one that I agree with.

    The protests were not just about one person’s misguided or uninformed opinion. This exhibition was also protested about in Berlin. And to suggest that all of the 23,000 people who signed the petition did so out of a sheep like mentality, actually ignores the central objection that many people have which is that this ‘so called’ art installation is not just provocative but highly offensive.

    Further more to suggest that no art should ever be censored is to ignore the political nature of art and can arguable be described as the worst kind of elitism. Art can be just as offensive as hate speech and should be open to being critiqued, challenged or banned, if it crosses that line between provoking thought and becomes offensive in its own right.

    Sadly that’s what Exhibit B does. It is directly offensive. In my opinion it is not art or is the worse kind of performance art. It may of course be unintentional but that doesn’t excuse its offence or give it or the artist a free pass. Brett is either misguided or has made a genuine mistake but clearly he feels that his attempt to revisit the objectification of black people during colonialism is beyond critical analysis and that he has nothing to gain or learn from the very black people who find his ‘show’ both insulting and degrading. I suspect this was the case because the protestors were not the intended audience of this piece. Is this why the protestors have legitimately characterised the exhibition as ‘a vanity project’, ‘torture porn’, ‘masturbation of white guilty’ and a ‘racist reproduction with no educational benefit.’

    Art should never be banned if it creatively seeks to provoke emotional or political reactions using artistically creative and skilful means of expression, but if all it does do, is re-enact or recreate the same offensive, perversely erotic and degrading experiences for a group of 750 ‘privileged voyeurs’ at £20 per head – then of course it should be banned or censored… why not?

    To justify Exhibit B as some sort of attempt at anti-racism is nothing more than an exercise in intellectualism. The real censorship is not in the closure of the human zoo but in the exclusion of the many other narratives of the black experience, other than those that portraying black slaves as powerless, passive victims of racism.

  8. I agree with Artist Observer, Kristie and Dalian and on top of that, you say… If I had children I would take them to see this exhibition too. “daddy did this really happen?” they would ask through tears “yes” I would reply. And our conversations would be elevated to why it happened and how it kinda happens today.

    An obsever like me would think why it took you a man with the ‘heart of an African’, to take your imaginary children to an exhibition like this to ‘educate’ them on how Africans have been maltreated in the past. Surely your imaginary children would have deserved much more than that well before an exhibition of this nature ever existed and Mr Sissay their imaginary tears could never distract anyone from your own un-elevated ill-education of these imagined beings.

    I say all this is as that writing here appears to me to be more about you trying to ‘educate’ yourself vicariously through someone else’s gaze in order to try and understand some confusing numbing pain you cant quite get rid of, yet have always felt a need to share as your art.

    Without knowing everything about you, thats my ‘gut instinct’ from reading your writing.

    • I appreciate your compassion. I understand your point of view. I’ve made mine known. But should you feel a need to focus on my… what was it you said… my “confusing numbing pain” then go ahead. You say “Without knowing everything about you, that’s my ‘gut instinct’ from reading your writing.” I say go with your gut. In this case I know where that leads.

  9. Pingback: Why I love Exhibit B | Segun Lee-French

  10. Hey brother, let it go, its not personal to you or Bailey, Sara is not the problem, rather its the context of institutional racism that renders us invisible in history and silenced in the contemporary. Its a real shame Bailey lis the catalyst for these discussions as lord knows we need this debate. The only thing I question about you is your conclusion otherwise I think your a fabulous, creative, talented black man. That having been said brother I can’t support you on this matter. But hey… its all one love, still…

  11. Lemn. Thank you for hosting probably one of the best debates on this issue. Personally I’ve relied on my instincts and gut reaction to this issue and then listened to the Pro and Con views of many people. I came to the conclusion that my instincts are correct and that the raised hackles on the back of my neck don’t lie: “something is terribly wrong here”. I’m all for challenging all aspects of society but I also believe that a piece of Art has to be performable in front of the people it depicts and if it can’t be performed then there is something not right with it as a piece. I believe that in general “who feels it, knows it”. As a Performer and a Creative I know that not all performers or Creative’s, including myself, get it right every time. Art does not get a Free Pass on the issue of Race and this installation is a “Fail”.

  12. Lemn, thank you for this thought provoking piece. This discussion has been rather difficult in South Africa, not because we cannot have it. It has been difficult because it forces us to go into those difficult spaces and to explore what has gone before us and yes, what in many ways continues to be part of our reality.

    What then do we do with these difficult conversations? Do we shy away from them or do we confront the ugly reality of our past and the scars we continue to carry? I would much rather partake in the process of remembrance and yes, be disturbed and unsettled by it.

    Sometimes it matters who the artiste is. Perhaps for some, it would be easier for if Bailey were a black man? Perhaps it matters not. For me, the process of remembrance is necessary. It is necessary to be stirred and to be pained.

    I understand your Holocaust comparison as going beyond what is showed and therefore a literal transposition. I understand you to say, despite the pain of people of Jewish descent, they continue to see images, listen to stories and art that reminds them of their history and ancestors. The modes may be different and so is the medium. But at the core of this is commitment to remember.

    Remembrance renders our past visible in a world that constantly tries to tell us to move on. I will take remembrance when it is offered. I will take it even when it makes me uncomfortable. I will take it for no other reason, but to continue to be conscious, to learn and yes, even if it means looking at images and listening stories that I find deeply unsettling.

    For this reason, I did not press the button support. I refused to be boxed into ‘support the campaign against the human zoo’ or to be a part of those who said ‘let us defend Bailey’s right as an artiste.’ I think there is a lot of grey in between. And it is here, in the grey areas, in the muddy waters of life that many of us continue to live….

    Thank you for being brave.

    • ” I refused to be boxed into ‘support the campaign against the human zoo’ or to be a part of those who said ‘let us defend Bailey’s right as an artiste.’ I think there is a lot of grey in between. And it is here, in the grey areas, in the muddy waters of life that many of us continue to live…. ” Beautiful.

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