Sunday 2 November 2014

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Who owns culture? More specifically, when it comes to ethnic minorities, who owns their culture? How are guardians of said culture appointed?

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?
Immediately after the press release went out the battle lines were drawn. On one side stood the censors, acting on behalf of a whole community, or culture, rather, and on the other side were the defenders of free speech and artistic freedom. I found myself on the latter camp. What complicates my position is that I am a black immigrant. In the eyes of those protesting against Exhibit B I have betrayed my people, my culture and my roots; in their eyes I am a Judas.

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.

© 2014

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)


  1. Although I know nothing of this debate, living across the pond, I appreciate your insight. Your opening question about the ownership of culture is an important one, not just in the artistic world but also in the commercial world as culture is often abused as a way to sell products.

  2. Oh wow. I can't imagine them shutting something like that down in America, honestly. Black History Month is earlier in the year here, but artistic expression is welcome here, as long as there's nothing sexually graphic about it.

  3. As soon as the press release was sent out one would expect such a reaction. Here they'd make a big fuss over it but still show it. Sometimes I admit I don't get such artistic expression anyway. Seems you can do anything short of murder and call it artistic expression.

  4. I echo Stephanie's comment.

  5. Uffff .... you sure know how to pick them, CiL .... controversial topics, I mean.

    Although I have family members who are involved professionally in visual arts (they actually make a considerable amount of money at it, too) and me, myself and I once "were editors" of the arts section of a newspaper, (how is that for plugging one's self ??) I will refrain from making any comments regarding the merits of the exhibit itself other saying it seems beyond ridiculous to have closed it. Let the public -- the people -- be the judge of its meaning and its intrinsic values by their attendance or lack of attendance.

    My own definition of art is quite narrow, and this exhibition might not even fit into it. My thought was that it seemed a bit more like political theater (which may or may not be art) and, a few paragraphs later, comes the name of Bertold Brecht and his remark, "art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it." From where I sit, such a belief is subverting art and using it as a political tool, which is all too common and always has been.

    The bottom line for me is that I would have enjoyed attending this exhibit. I might have learned something by doing so .... or, I might not .... but, it should have been for me, myself and I to discover.

  6. I'll try and keep my response short. As usual, I (a white South African) find myself in agreement with you (a Cuban in London). :)

    Today I was having a rant about tweets from young South Africans about the alleged murderers of our soccer captain - supposedly illegal immigrants (black but not South African), and the (black South African)tweeters made utterly racist, xenophobic comments.

    What's this got to do with the protests at the Barbican Exhibition B? As you say - racism is racism, whoever spouts it.

    The classic "The Nature of Prejudice" by Prof Gordon Allport should be compulsory reading for every child, for he shows that racism/prejudice is a human condition, not a peculiarly white South African or Nazi German trait.

    Until we all realise this, the culture of victimhood will lead decent people into dangerous acts because they'll see oppression and threats everywhere they look (take the Israeli/Palestinian conflict) Unless they can have the courage to recognise this, and transcend their wounds, they will become the very demon they purport to fight. (think of the Melian Dialogue in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War!)

    I could, of course, write a whole blogpost on this topic, but you said it so well I'll just say Bravo! :) (and tweet this link!) :)

  7. Both victims and perpetrators should be offended by these images; art does offend/open our eyes/make us feel uncomfortable and indignant. If it doesn't touch us, it has not succeeded.

  8. As an older white women, you might think I'd be protesting about Exhibition B. But I'm not. It makes me hugely uncomfortable, being faced with evidence that my predecessors behaved with such inhumanity. Of course, I'd rather not be reminded. But it's right that I should - I can't sweep my history under the carpet. So installations such as this are important - and if it upsets a few affluent, white people then that's fine.

  9. Sad and bad.
    The very best art often is confronting - or should be.
    And censorship of art allows things to fester unseen.

  10. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    As it happens, I have just been having a conversation on Twitter with one of the protesters, former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone's adviser on equality, Lee Jasper. Find below a copy of the transcript of our conversation. It makes for interesting reading, especially his question about what a black Cuban is doing in London.

    Lee Jasper‏@LeeJasper: Interesting minority liberal perspective.

    Me: Well, mate, if you cancel things, you can't expect a majority, can you? #humanculture

    Lee: 750 punters max against the view of thousands, I note not a word about liberal arts racism almost like it doesn't exist

    Lee: London's black communities in the majority fundamentally disagree.

    Lee: Our movement counted tens of thousands If 750 deluded liberals are upset, it's a small price to pay.

    When I pointed out to Lee Jasper that the only loser in his protest had been art, this was his reply:

    Art lost? What planet are you on? What's a black Cuban doing in UK anyway?

    At which point I replied and signed out. This is the type of question Nigel Farage would probably ask me.

    Have a great week, folks.

    Greetings from London.

  11. In response to Lee Jasper: Hiss and spit.

  12. i think part of the problem comes from 'owning culture'...because owning it, we can manipulate it to tell the story we want to hear...and is that culture...even when the intentions are preservation....

  13. I can't really comment on the exhibition since I didn't see it and even if it wasn't cancelled I probably wouldn't have as I don't tend to have any interest in art installations of any kind (unless supporting a friend). If the premise behind it, as described, is correct, I can't really see the problem. Since I'm not really au fait with the debate I'll reserve judgment.

    My main issue is with the terms 'black culture' and 'black community' in the first place and why they are used without being sufficiently challenged. If it's ludicrous to speak of white culture then why not of 'Black' culture? It's with great reluctance I use reductive, heavily-politicised terms such as 'black' and 'white' anyway but in this context it winds me up no end. Whose culture? Who exactly is 'black' and are we going to really lump the people and histories of Trinidad, Eritrea and Papua New Guinea under one shorthand label? 20% of the world's African/Caribbean population is Nigerian (depending on what statistics you believe). Strangely enough they're culturally different from say the Ndebele speakers in Zimbabwe although I am sure there are several overlaps as there are with aspects of central and S.American cultures and those of certain West African countries for obvious reasons. That doesn't mean we should ignore distinction altogether.

    I understand how some of us who are brown minorities in Western countries want to cleave to these labels as a form of solidarity but we must not forget we are only 'minorities' in certain geographical contexts; definitely not on a global scale. Hence we should beware of assuming a victim mentality as my younger sis sagely pointed out to me years ago.

    I actually think talk of 'black culture' (not to mention the possibly even more irritating and inaccurate 'black history') etc reduces us to a dehumanised mass much in the way the racism that we decry does. This isn't dissimilar to Cuban's argument about how the protests play into the bigots' hands. 'Blackness' is often a commodification of African-American stereotypes that can be conveniently use to peddle certain products and 'youth culture'. And of course the problem is if you speak of a singular 'black culture' regardless of geographical, political or historical context, then you get self-appointed spokesmen/women who claim to represent the masses (and yet so often they don't represent me). This presumptuousness is what I perceive to be the cause of consternation that gave rise to this post. As far as I'm concerned they all stem from the same victim mentality (ibid).

    PS. A previous comment left by a certain S.African contributor doesn't sit well with me. I suppose I agree with it in principle but perhaps the way it is phrased sounds a bit too self-justifying.

    Shalom x

  14. Re: My Nigeria comment-Even within this population of 160 -200 million there are great cultural differences let alone compared to other (artificially created) nation states.You get my point.

  15. Cubano, this is a much more complex issue than whether freedom of artistic expression should be upheld. As an African American woman who specializes in reviewing art and culture, I can assure you that the exhibit would probably have been pulled in the U.S. as well. In light of the racist violence that has been happening across the country an exhibit that focuses on live representations of subjugation would certainly be protested. The issue is that the racist violence and stereotypical media images that flood the U.S. are directly connected to the conditions that the exhibit portrays. The best art inspires emotion and hopefully social change, but not always. If the conditions and legacies of racism weren't still so prevalent,an exhibit like that would be treated as a museum piece and a chance to look at the past. Only its not the past, as so many like to believe. People of color are subjugated and dehumanized enough in reality so that a negative response to that exhibit is understandable. Given the background of the artist, I think that if he had worked with London's black communities, discussing the issues he wanted to address and how, he would have gotten a valuable dialogue about the racial realities of London. Perhaps he would have done the exhibit differently, perhaps not but the community would have felt like their voices were considered. Too often they are not, which is why such responses happen. Kara Walker is an artist that does similar uncomfortable installations about race and slavery and I have taken friends to see her work. The reactions are often visceral and many viewers feel insulted. I think that great art pushes you way beyond comfort and makes you address the core issues. It is too bad that the artist didn't get that chance but you must consider the wider issues. As far as Black History month, which is in February, the shortest month of the year, in the U.S., you're exactly right, every day should be a day that contributions and accomplishments from black people should be honored. Except they aren't. Most schools in the U.S. do not include much about black history or contributions. If there weren't a month to commemorate it, even less black history would be discussed or honored. Until there is a real inclusiveness in society, one little month is all we have to try to make up for the invisibility going on the rest of the year. It's not right but neither is racisim.

  16. Well-said. As I see it, the issue here is more about censorship than it is about racism or culture. To those people, like that Sara Myers, who found that exhibit objectionable, I'd say, "Don't go see it." If she doesn't like it, that's her choice, but what right does she have to deny other people the right to make their OWN judgement about it? It's the same with those close-minded individuals who want books banned or movies shut down. We don't all have to agree about what's worthy of being called literature or art, but we should all have the option to decide for ourselves. Controversial exhibits should merit honest discussions, not supression.

  17. Hummm.. That took me by surprise my dear friend... It surprised me that was suspended in London, a city where I lived for a while and thought were more open.. Anyway, I'll talk about two things:
    1) Who owns the culture? Well, back in the 70's of the SXX, a bunch of then young Anthropologists started in Mexico to fight against the usual principles of the classical Anthropology, which made The State as the owner of the cultures in the practice. This guys (Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Margarita Nolasco, Guillermo Bonfil, Roger Bartra, Enrique Valencia, Mercedes Olivera and some others), in a book named "De eso que llaman Antropología Mexicana"), changed that view grounded basically on the universality of the cultural principles and the cultural relativism. Now the owners of the cultures were the own cultures! The word were spread through al the indigenous American countries! (say Guatemala, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and of course, Mexico, and in a lesser degree, in the other countries of America), and forced by the social movements of the time (from the end of the 60's to the early 80's), forced the states to change their views. The problem is that the state is the owner of the resources, so yes, they own the culture, but NOT the resources... anyway, the consequences of that innovations in the concept, have had consequences till today: Evo Morales in Bolivia, the Zapatistas movement in the middle 90's in Mexico, and in general, even in USA, the fight for their rights by the native cultures. In resume, yes, the owner of the culture are the own cultures, but since the resources are not from them, then the change is just theoretical.
    2) As a consequence of (1), then what might happen from Mexico to Argentina the play might not be shouted down, but simply die on its own...
    Very interesting post my friend, really! (I hope I could made me understand)

  18. Tolita, as the only thing you know about me from Cuban's brilliant blog is that I'm a white South African, (my name, by the way, is Judy Croome), perhaps you should get to know me as a human being before letting your prejudice show. Why don't you read my post A Human Being Died That Night and then you might know enough about me to understand the essence of my (admittedly abbreviated) comment on the important issues Cuban so eloquently raised.

    Shalom aleichem, As-salam alaykum, Hamba Kahle and, to honour my white Afrikaaner father who, like Cuban was a humanist before he was anything else, Totsiens.

  19. What is 'race'? And colour? You've really made a nuanced argument in your article. And I'm with you. I think culture lost out when the exhibition shut down. It does seem to be 'white privilege'.. Also, I can imagine that the themes the exhibit explored were very difficult and that might be why the protesters wanted to shut it down.

    What a shame that it didn't open up the floor for debate instead.

  20. I believe that all good art should touch us...make us feel strong emotion...and this does make me feel strongly...that my ancestors have treated people so badly, just because they happen to be a different colour or belong to a different culture.
    However, to ban such an exhibition is, I believe, totally wrong.
    As you say, that is only adding injury to patronizing the very people they believe they are protecting.
    I have never believed in either "black culture or white culture".
    Like you...I only see "human culture."

    Thank you so much for this extremely thought-provoking post...I am with you all the way!

    Have a great week :)

  21. Many thanks for your comments.

    As I mentioned at the beginning of my post, I value everyone's contributions a lot. I am fortunate to have so many (virtual) friends.

    At the same time what we write has an effect, whether we like it or not. Teh question Lee Jasper asked me about why I, a black Cuban, had moved to the UK, had an effect. Had he asked me the same question in real life, all smiles and pats on the shoulder, I wouldn't have thought twice about it. But given the background to his question, it had a negative effect. Not very often is my presence in this coutnry questioned. I would like to believe that the reason for that is that I make a valuable contribution to the UK.

    Same with some posters here. Please, respect each other's feelings - unless someone is being borderline racist or sexist, or homophobic, in which case I will deal with that person.

    I will continue posting about controversial matters every now and then because that's part of my nature. Ask difficult questions and try to come up with answers, together with you. In times when our cultures (wherever your culture might be in the world) are being dumbed down, we need to keep our wits about us, but we also need to maintain a modicum of decency whilst voicing our opinions.

    Thanks. Have a great week.

    Greetings from London.

  22. Our history is appalling. I wish that it were not so but all I can do is pray that one day prejudice will be non-existent.

  23. I wondered similar things when i first read about the exhibition being closed.

    I agree with your point of view, particularly with respect to not needing a Black History month, because black history should be something that we learn about as a matter of course all the time. Having said that events like that can draw attention to issues that would otherwise go unnoticed.

    Referring to the exhibtion itself (which I haven't seen) - sometimes art needs to be controversial, to make people feel uncomfortable so that they are awakened to reality....

  24. Hello Judy,

    (I deliberately avoided using your name before because I was attempting to be tactful/discreet)

    Thank you for your reply. I read your post and I must commend your writing talent.

    It's a nuanced piece, or at least I got a clearer understanding of the inner conflict going on than your original comment here. I am sorry if you felt my reply was unfair. I was just responding to what I perceived to be a glibness in your original reply to Cubano's post.

    I don't believe I was insulting or excessively harsh. I didn’t swear, use offensive language or launch an ad hominem attack. As I said I mostly agreed with content if not the tone. As much as I don't wish to cause distress I'd feel I'd be hypocritical and a little cowardly to retract from my original statement. I hope this doesn't come across as arrogant defiance but I was expressing an opinion and I did so in what I believe is a respectful way. It's merely that; an opinion, subject to revision. I won't deny I might have been coming from a place of defensiveness but all opinions are informed by our worldview in some way, right or wrong. That's why they need to be challenged from time to time and I appreciate that is what you are doing in responding to me.

    To be frank I felt a similar unease reading your critique of ‘A Human…’ as I did reading your original comment. Perhaps this is the point because it’s such a conflicted piece. It could be the way it is so charitable to De Klerk who only reluctantly repealed Apartheid and after a worldwide campaign ensured it was no longer socio-economically viable to continue with it. It might be the insinuation that indigenous South Africans blame European S.Africans wholesale for either being apathetic or colluding with the Apartheid regime when I'm sure many will acknowledge the sacrifices of certain white south Africans in the struggle against the system, the Jewish community in particular. I know Mandela was very much indebted to them.

    Perhaps I have read too much into it. Maybe the addressee in the story isn't meant to represent 'black South Africa', just Pumla herself. I haven’t read the book. It might have been better if I was familiar with it in order to contextualise your story/critique. Still, you wanted me to read your post which I have and these are my impressions.

    I don't want to cause any awkwardness on these pages but neither would I wish to feel muzzled or 'censored' (irony upon irony considering the provenance of this post). I did try to be measured in my original reply (hence the euphemistic reference instead of your name) and I am somewhat chagrined that didn't come across.

    I sincerely hope there are no hard feelings.

    Shalom x

  25. I think the sad truth is that many people have strong opposing views about issues like race and culture. Neither those broadly to the left or those to the right are palatable to those of us who prefer to see people as ... well, people. OToH many people from ethnic minorities prefer that their culture is acknowledged. I didn't see the show either and I did not really want to. It seemed to have no direct relevance to me as I a m not a black immigrant.

    Does this sound rather muddled? It does to me. Perhaps that's why I think that shows like this should be allowed to go ahead, as should anything that doesn't break the law. Because different people will react in different ways to suit themselves.

  26. Your opening question is key. What an insightful, well reasoned piece. Racism and censorship are both complicated ussuses. I'm not familiar with Exhibit B but it sounds like a thought provoking installation...or would have been. I think we will never make progress without some difficult discussions. I admire you for your eloquent, thoughtful response.

  27. This comment has been removed by the author.

  28. I admire you for speaking with your conscience and not following what one cultural group dictates, even if you could be considered a member. I also appreciate this open and tolerant community that gathers around your blog that isn't transcribed by race, nationality, class or gender. The best discussions come when people of different backgrounds and values come to share their point of view.

    The book I reviewed today, Black Girl Dreaming, was criticized by a NYT reviewer for its title (although it was otherwise a glowing review). She thought it should just be Girl Dreaming so as not to limit the audience, but I rather like the bold title and there is something wrong with society, not the book, if this title is limiting.

  29. @Tolita, no hard feelings at all. We differ on our perspectives and that's what healthy debate is all about - an attempt to see beyond our external differences and our different experiences of life to the common humanity within.

    Best wishes
    Judy Croome, South Africa : Words in the Hands of Love



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