As If Things Weren’t Hot Enough

Deborah Seddon raises questions about Brett Bailey’s Exhibit A, performed at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown

At the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year, one of the hottest topics of conversation was the varied and vividly opposing reactions to two works of performance art: Brett Bailey’s Exhibit A and Steven Cohen’s Cradle of Humankind (see Art South Africa 10.4 for an essay on the latter). Produced by two of South Africa’s most provocative artists, these works speak to – and often past – one another in important ways. Both grapple with the legacy of racism and colonialism. Central to this focus is the performative use of the human body. Where the two productions differ is in the position taken by the artist. This raises the question of risk in contemporary art in South Africa: where and by whom it is taken, and the different effects achieved.

Bailey’s Exhibit A is part of a larger ‘Exhibit’ series, produced in Europe by Bailey’s Third World Bunfight, to expose the colonial histories of various European countries. The series began with Exhibit A, produced by Wiener Festwochen (in Vienna) and Theaterformen Festival (Braunschweig). Exhibit B was staged in Brussels earlier this year and is due to appear in Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris, Ghent and Avignon. Exhibit C will appear in London, Edinburgh and Madrid.

Exposing, and in some senses rehearsing, the history of human zoos that were major events in Europe from the mid-nineteenth century, Exhibit A attempts to push the audience to a space beyond representation by using paid actors to pose live as the ‘primitives’ who appeared in such exhibits. It explores particularly the brutal histories of German South West Africa and the Belgian Congo. As the audience moves through the various exhibition rooms, the history of the genocide against the Herero and the Nama, and the vicious exploitation of the Congolese by the Force Publique is retold. The exhibits bring the viewer up to the present, in which violent racism against migrants of African descent is linked directly to Europe’s amnesia concerning its colonial past. The effect is startling, and often distressing, as the human actors hold our gaze, confronting the viewer with Europe’s depraved fascination with its constructed racial other – and with our own participation. As Bailey explains on the handout given to his festival audience, “This exhibit was originally made for European audiences, to confront them with a history that they have hidden or forgotten. Here in South Africa the piece will resonate differently. The display cabinets of Exhibit A showcase a European mind-set but their panes of glass reflect our own reality.”

Read more in the current issue of Art South Africa magazine (11.1), in stores now.

Deborah Seddon
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN ART SOUTH AFRICA V11.1