I waited for a while before posting about Exhibition B here. The atmosphere was too toxic and the language too “black and white” (no pun intended) to risk showing my head above the parapet. As a blogger, I have always prided myself on the sort of discussion that happens in my (virtual) space. No matter what I throw at you, fellow bloggers and readers – and I throw a lot – the responses are most of the time respectful and mature, which is probably one of the reasons why my blog has remained troll-free so far.
Sadly, none of this respect and maturity was present when a group of protesters closed Exhibit B down.
For those of you who still don’t know what I’m going on about, Exhibit B was an art installation that was due to open at the Barbican at the end of September before it was cancelled. The show was created by a white South African artist, Brett Bailey, and a cast of black performers and contained disturbing scenes of black subjugation inspired by the 19th and early 20th century “human zoos”. Throughout the exhibition the performers fixed their gaze deliberately on visitors. Some of the scenes were hard to watch – or so I have heard because with the show being closed down I missed the opportunity to have my say – depicting the horrors of the systematic dehumanisation that happened throughout the period of imperial Europe.
|Art or an expression of white privilege?|
What we seem to always forget is that Judas gave back those thirty silver coins and I have never taken any to begin with. The irony in this whole “storm in a tea cup” situation is that by forcing an institution as respectable as the Barbican to close an art exhibition, these (self) appointed guardians of black culture have contributed to the same problems they purport to fight against.
As I have argued before in this very space the biggest threat to my existence as a black immigrant in today’s Britain does not come in the shape of a boot worn on a racist thug’s foot, likely as it might be. It comes, more often, in the condescending attitude to me and black immigrants who think like me, that prevails amongst some well-meaning folk (especially those in the upper echelons of power) for whom I am nothing but a category. By denying us a platform from which we can argue issues like this one the protesters against Exhibition B validated those prejudices. Black people can’t think, they are not good at analysing and assessing works of art for what they are.
I’m writing this post in the middle of October, a month when we normally hold Black History Month in the UK. This is an event that does not appeal a great deal to yours truly, despite the fact that I have contributed to it as a performer, as a dance tutor and as a film festival curator and organiser. But still, the thought persists: “Why should we have just the one month to celebrate the many achievements in black culture?”. There should not be a Black History Month but a Black History Year, where you don’t feel the pressure to hire black musicians (usually percussionists because drumming is so African!) at the last minute to show that you are completely “clued-up” about diversity. Actually, scrap the whole Black History Month/Year. Black history exists, it’s palpable and real, deal with it on a day to day basis.
This world of patronising attitudes is the one in which these self-appointed censors operate but they don’t seem to have any awareness of it. The other irony is that the majority of those marching against the show had not seen the installation. The person who started the online petition that ultimately led to the closure of the show, Birmingham-based activist and journalist Sara Myers, said that there should have been prior consultation. She also added that the exhibit was “in very, very bad taste for our community”. Your community? Wait a second, that’s also my community! Lee Jasper, former advisor on equalities to ex-mayor of London, Ken Livingstone said that “black people, not white liberal elites are the best arbiters of the extent to which this exhibition is helping or hindering the challenge of combating racism and prejudice.” Wrong on all accounts, Lee, the best arbiter is you and you only. If, as Bertold Brecht stated “art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”, you, Mr Jasper and your fellow protestors, took away my hammer and, thus, deprived me of the right to shape my reality.
I understand how the process of spear-heading a movement occurs. It can be intentional or totally accidental. If you happen to be in the right place at the right time when discrimination against a particular group takes place and you raise your voice against this treatment in an articulate and clear manner, you might end up as the leader of the pack. It is then that you might start feeling that your views are the right views, the only views even, for everyone on your team, whether they agree with them or not.
I am sure that Sara Myers’ intentions were good. I am not criticising her for that. I am sure that she thought that by getting 23,000 people to sign a petition calling for the closure of a show in a free, democratic society she would somehow contribute to the development of our race. The problem is that Sara Myers is not all black culture. In fact, let me be really controversial here, before black culture there is something called human culture.
Exhibit B was part of that human culture. The fact that both creator and institution had to go to great lengths to convince people that the installation was not racist shows how far we still have to go as a culture. If the installation was or wasn’t racist I would have liked to arrive at that conclusion myself. I don’t need Sara Myers or Dr Kehinde Andres to tell me how to assess a piece of art. The protesters also showed huge contempt towards the performers for whom this was an opportunity to explore their own roots and events from the past in which their forebears were probably involved. By forcing an arts centre to cancel an exhibition under the aegis of freedom of speech these self-appointed guardians of black culture took away the performers and the artist’s freedom of speech. Please, stand to one side, let irony back through in again.
Sadder than the spectacle of so-called defenders of black culture protesting against an arts installation was the Barbican ceding ground. Bigots come in many shapes and forms, not just in the shaven-headed hooligan or the tie-and-suited Ukipper model. They can also be academics who have earned their stripes by writing books about race or activists raising awareness of racism. An arts centre, on the other hand, has a duty towards its users and visitors regardless of their gender, skin colour, (dis) ability, religion, sexual orientation or race. The Barbican shouldn’t have closed down the exhibition. Engagement? Yes. Censorship? No. It looks as though we still haven’t learnt the lessons from Salman Rushdie’s fatwa.
Black culture, or the black community, as Sara Myers called it, is bigger than these self-appointed guardians can imagine. As Aditya Chakraborty, senior economicscommentator for The Guardian, wrote in a thought-provoking column last week, you can be Bengali and black. This is not a combination that springs quickly to most people’s minds. Moreover, black not always is the main identity marker for some of us born outside the UK. Should we then give up on our main identity markers to match Sara and Kehinde’s ideas of blackness?
I will always fight racism whatever shape it takes. But sometimes it is harder to fight it when it comes from people you would otherwise see as your allies.
Image taken from The Daily Telegraph
Next Post: “Pieces of Havana, Pieces of Me”, to be published on Wednesday 5th November at 11:59pm (GMT)