Writing Art History Since 2002

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ARTsouthAFRICA 13.2 is the Controversy Issue. In it, we published exclusive material surrounding the ‘Exhibit B’ (by Brett Bailey) debacle at the Barbican in London. Sara Myers, activist and petitioner, begain a movement known as #boycottthehumanzoo in opposition to Bailey’s ‘Exhibit B.’ Ashraf Jamal spoke to her one-on-one about her views on the performance and how she believes it reinforces institutionalised racism.

EXHIBIT B Sara Myers Copyright Thabo Jaiyesimi WEB

ABOVE: Sara Myers. Image courtesy and copyright of Thabo Jaiyesimi.

Ashraf Jamal: Hello Sara! Thank you so much for the privilege and opportunity of speaking with you. You’re based in Birmingham in the UK and I’m speaking from Cape Town, South Africa. While there are surely striking cultural differences we do share a strong interest in the on-going problem of racism — and the targeting in particular of black people. South Africa, of course, is notorious for its apartheid history, but of this brutal regime is predated by British colonialism. A key piece of British colonial legislation in South Africa was the Natives Land Act of 1913, in which 90% of the land in my country was given to a white minority. 101 years later South Africa is still afflicted by this massively unequal distribution of land, and along with it, a history of unequal education, living standards, job prospects, etc. In other words, despite South Africa’s ‘New Democracy,’ the country remains afflicted by the on-going legacy of inequality. I say this to reassure you that I am in no way deluded regarding South Africa’s so-called democracy. Rather, by framing our conversation in this way — one which understands that history hurts — I’d like you to reflect on your own position as a black British woman: how different is life in the UK today? Do you feel that your government is doing enough to correct the inequities of Imperialism? What about the UK’s embedded class and economic divide? And how do you think that the UK’s black population is treated today?

Sara Myers: Firstly thank you for taking the time out to speak with me! It’s a pleasure to be able to talk openly about issues of race which still affect us as Africans in the Diaspora today. I say pleasure purposely, because it’s not until something like #boycottthehumanzoo that these conversations come up, and to be a catalyst for the conversation is a pleasurable and great thing. Growing up in Britain has been a mix of feelings and emotions. The land itself is truly beautiful and full of history and heritage, however the systems in place are warped. It’s a country built on old money (incidentally gained through human trafficking, and theft of riches from other countries) and social class and within those class structures you have racism, prejudice and discrimination. Born in 1973 in Leeds, I was still being referred to as a child of an immigrant when I was 6, yet I was as British as the next person born here. I have never felt part of the culture here and to be honest I cannot stand the British flag, in fact I hate it. It’s an image of White Nationalism which has always screamed racism to me, the National Front achieved that imagery very early in my childhood.

The economic divide is subtle, and no it’s not being addressed. Rather it is reinforced by the implementation of policies and legislations, meaning the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. Currently, we have a working poor vs the unemployed poor war going on. The more you speak to people, the more you find out how unhappy people are. Everyone wants equality and justice, however some people don’t want equal equality or justice, they want it only for themselves and that is very sad.

It is within this bigger cultural, political, and economic context that I’d like us to talk about Brett Bailey’s show, Exhibit B, which was recently cancelled by the Barbican Theatre. I believe you were instrumental in ensuring the cancellation of the show? How did you do it — and why? Did you rely largely on the power of the Internet? And what was the crux of your resistance to Exhibit B?

I started the petition and lead the campaign #boycottthehumanzoo, yes. How did I do it? Well I suppose I believed in something and people saw my passion. I did not expect it to grow the way it did, I thought it would be just a few of us, however everyone else saw the emperor had no clothes on too and that was an achievement for all of us involved. I cannot take all the credit, we worked as a team and used social media, the press and the power of protesting- and it worked. We did it because it was ‘wrong.’ This kind of art could not, and would not, be exhibited like that if it involved other cultures without their direct involvement. Subjects like child abuse or rape would not be presented in such a way either, yet a white South African can present live black actors in chains and cages and that is okay? I keep asking questions that these people are not answering, they exhibit rhetorical ethic and it sounds great but the reality is it’s just fluff. There is no substance to their claims that it challenges racism, because they themselves don’t actually know what racism is.

In short, my resistance was the same resistance my ancestors showed towards enslavement and colonialism, that was it. Their memories of pain and suffering cannot be used by some opportunist who prances around chanting “challenging art.” It’s not challenging at all, it is offensive and disrespectful. I don’t care much for the actors taking part in it either, we only ever heard from four out of all the hundreds that took part. I think that speaks volumes.

Finally, we did not cancel the show. The Barbican cancelled it, we just protested.

EXHIBIT B Paris Woman uses milk Thabo Jaiyesimi


ABOVE: A woman uses milk to help alleviate the symptoms of pepper spray after being sprayed by police at protest against Exhibit B in Saint-Denis near Paris. Image courtesy and copyright of Thabo Jaiyesimi.

I see that you describe yourself as “a Black African mother from Birmingham,” and that you “campaign and work” with your community “to breakdown the stereotypes that black people have to struggle against in society on a daily basis.” Furthermore you call for a world in which your children can grow up without being subjected to the “barbaric things” that happened in the past. It seems that your target is not only the work of a South African playwright but all importantly the British institution, the Barbican. Also, it seems that you are primarily driven by the war against racism on a local, regional, and national level. In other words, it is not only Exhibit B which concerns you, but the very fabric of British culture which, in your view, promotes what you call “a white supremacist mind-set.” “We charge the Barbican with exhibiting institutional racism for agreeing to stage this poison,” you write.

Can you please elaborate?

Sure, I am a Pan-Africanist, if you want to narrow down my political thoughts. I believe in the teachings of Marcus Garvey so I hold strongly to the notion of Racial Pride. Every single race has national pride, why then can we as Africans not have pride in who we are as a people? We are not apologetic of who we are and we have esteem in ourselves, that to me is a good thing. So when you have an institution that wants to undermine you, your people and your image, someone must take a stand. The Barbican failed to engage with the community about Exhibit B. Apart from massaging white guilt and the performance of shock and horror at these historical atrocities, there has been no change in any of the European countries it has been shown in. There have been no positive outcomes, just a bunch of liberals talking about its “importance” but divorcing themselves from the realities of these atrocities. It’s pure hypocrisy.

The protest rally outside the Barbican amounted to over 200 people, am I correct? What struck me, indeed, what mortified me were the placards which read: “I AM SOMEBODY” and “I AM NOT AN OBJECT.” If you recall the thought of the great Martiniquan resistance fighter and psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, you’ll remember — ‘In Black Skins, White Masks’ — Fanon’s critique of the Imperial project as one which not only destroyed black people by enslaving them bodily, but by destroying their minds, hearts, and souls. I mention this because to see protesters proclaiming the rights to their being, and affirming that they are not “objects” — in 2014 — is surely very alarming. Do you think that people remain intellectually-imaginatively- spiritually enslaved? And if so, in what way is Exhibit B a means of perpetrating this existential slavery?

Most definitely I think Fanon’s works expose the hypocrisy of Exhibit B. The perpetration lies in it only showing one side of the story. The objectification of the black man and woman, the others. However it is not balanced, in fact it is a highly unbalanced showing of the compliancy of blackness but failing to show its resistance. The images in Exhibit B are not ones of power, but of powerlessness, hence my chanting of “Black Power” and risen fists. For how many more years must we see images of ourselves as slaves? How does this empower a people? Slaves were “things,” they weren’t people. They were objects, but we were never slaves. I am fed up of these people force feeding us the notion that we are slaves. We are not slavics, that is their history, their legacy. Ours is one of greatness, resistance and victory. However they are not interested in us as people, only in our culture from which they have stolen and our history which they have whitewashed. Exhibit B is a look into the mind of a white liberal who has both power and priviledge, where the subtleness of racism is still very much alive and masquerading as art.

You may recall the internationally celebrated movie, 12 Years a Slave. In that film, directed by the Black Brit Steve McQueen, we see unrelentingly brutal acts of violence perpetrated against black people. Frankly I found that film far more horrifying than anything which Exhibit B could muster. And yet no one seemed upset about Steve McQueen’s movie — which won an Oscar! Why do you think that is?

I did not find 12 Years a Slave a particularly appealing film either. I think many people were upset with it, although it wasn’t challenged as forcefully as we would have hoped. I found it particularly insulting also, here we have a man running around shouting “I am a free slave” but seriously, these slave narratives are only a part of our story. I also think Steve McQueen is a director who just happens to be black, unlike Spike Lee who is a black director, there is a massive difference there. Lee brings his identity into his work, it’s part of who he is and how he approaches his work- for instance Malcom X, which was an awesome piece of film. To me, McQueen’s identity as a black man is not reflected in his work. It’s not part of his work, not even about 12 Years a Slave could I say “yeah, as a black man he got it.”

Any director, black or white, could have made that film. I watched an interview with him and his thoughts on the film were extremely disappointing, he looked uncomfortable identifying with blackness…I guess for some it is unimportant. I think we need to stop peddling these narratives though, of us as a race of people being in a constant state of powerlessness. It’s cheap and disrespectful. Enslavement is an interruption in a sentence in a chapter of our book. However the world focuses on it the most because it reinforces the “you were nothing” trope and we win Oscars for it. It would be laughable if it were not so tragic. The reality is that the only people who can play ‘slaves’ are black and of course we can play the parts well because it’s our reality, in the sense that it really did happen to our people, our ancestors went through it, they experienced it and it’s part of our DNA.

We win Oscars for playing mammies, slaves, crooks, women who give themselves to racists, what does that really say about the industry? Yet we still have all these social-economic challenges facing our communities, we still cannot get justice for those who have died in police custody. Liberals say “oh well, you don’t have a problem with Django Unchained or Amistad” but the thing is, those two films show resistance of some sort, the fighting back, the determination to fight back — not just acceptance of the situation and defeat. That wasn’t true of those enslaved, they fought back constantly. Exhibit B and its perverse ‘white gaze’ is highly insulting on so many levels. It’s not the truth. Why not show the heads of the French being chopped off in Haiti? 

I can understand that Exhibit B is highly provocative. In fact, one UK newspaper declared it “unbearable and essential.” You on the other hand found it simply unbearable. When you saw the show, what was it that motivated you to protest? For myself, I was disturbed by the eye-contact; I could not shirk the gaze of the black figure gazing back at me. I felt that I was caught up in a kind of misery porn. And yet, weirdly, I felt chastened by the whole affair. How did you feel?

Ha! I have not and did not have any intentions of seeing it. I have been heavily criticised for not going to see it, but I didn’t go as I have no wish to expose my psyche to more negativity of black men and women. I have NO desire to see a fully grown man in 2014 with a slave iron bit over his mouth, no sir not me. I find the whole exhibition perverse and akin to racial porn. Brett said he wanted the audience to be “delighted and disturbed but more importantly disturbed.” I found that comment really telling. This was about sexual excitement in seeing semi-naked women and men, in bondage, the power of the audience in being control, the subjects being objectified, and in short getting off on it and then feeling guilty for getting off on it. However you look at it, I find it quite sick.

What my ancestors went through is not a social experiment, not for art like that. Their memory is sacred, it’s honoured and revered. This is a people who went through tremendously barbaric acts of violence. You cannot then want people to get off on that, it’s sick and twisted and an insult to our ancestors, all of them from around the globe who were victims of white supremacy and racial oppression. That we would just stand back and allow this to happen, not on my watch no way. Before starting the petition I went online and researched it — I saw video clips, listened to Brett speak about it and looked at the images. This trauma recreation filled me with tremendous anger. I couldn’t believe that in 2014 someone thought that this would be okay. I was left wondering what kind of sick mind conjures this madness up. Imagine if I wanted to create a piece of art where white people were beheaded, can you image the outcry, even though it happens, and it happened — it would not even see the commission table. I would be inciting racial hatred. No, I did not need to see Exhibit B to know it is basically a bag of shite, and no amount of pseudo-intellectual psycho-babble can tell me or the 23,000 people who signed the petition otherwise!

Brett Bailey declares: “Nowhere do I term Exhibit B a ‘human zoo.’ Exhibit B is not a piece about black histories made for white audiences. It is a piece about humanity, about a system of dehumanisation that affects everybody in society, regardless of skin colour, ethnic or cultural background.” You, however, and I think justly, declare that it is a piece that objectifies black slavery. Now Bailey does not dispute this; in fact he attests that the show is guaranteed to offend! My point here is to ask you to reflect on the UK and Europe today, a community going through a brutal recession, a rising fascism and parochialism. Indeed, Europe — a global melting pot and rich inter- racial society — now finds itself confronted by its demons. Surely Exhibit B is there to show up those demons? And isn’t it the role of art not only to protest but to arrest the conscience and the imagination, and force us, as you rightly state, to become better people?

I agree, however that is not the way to do it. Brett does not describe himself as a political artist, or an activist who uses art to convey a message about humanity and dehumanisation. He says Exhibit B is black history for white audiences, but it’s not. It’s his interpretation of black people’s history, and that is what he must own. There is nothing there that I can relate to, and again, what exactly does it speak to white audiences? It’s a performance piece. Akala said it best; it’s the “masturbation of white guilt” and we (humanity) do not need that in order to be better people, we don’t need white guilt or tears. We don’t need a quick ejaculation of emotions, we need equal equality, we need equal justice and we need liberation. Yes, art can be used to shock, cause outrage, to share a message, but Brett’s message was not to humanity. If it were, it would have included all races; but it was not about humanity, he chops and changes it to suit his audience. The demons of white supremacy are all around.

At £20 a ticket, it would only be white middle-class people going to see it in London. From the comments on my YouTube and Twitter, I doubt very much that after seeing it they would give up their privilege of being white. White supremacy (privilege and power) manifests itself in telling you what you need, what is good for you and what is right. I think most of the resistance I faced was because I chose to stand up and say “no, this isn’t a good thing.” Because I am a black woman, it’s as if I should shut up and know my place. Well that isn’t going to happen. Just as Bailey or any other artist has the right to make any kind of art they wish, once it is in the public domain and is publicly funded, I, like many others have the right to stand up and say NO. Enough is enough, stop.

It’s been a great pleasure chatting with you via email. A brief aside: You’re based in Birmingham, the home of one of the most important school’s devoted to the race debate. Do you think we’re stuck inside our raced and sexed identities? Do you think we’ll ever arrive at a ‘post- racial’ consciousness — which I think is your dream for your children? And, finally, do you have any qualms regarding your intervention against Exhibit B? Can you think of other worthy targets for protest?

To conclude: one of South Africa’s greatest resistance fighters is the murdered Steve Biko who famously declared: “I WRITE WHAT I LIKE.” A highly ethical libertarian, Biko championed the Freedom of Expression. By shutting down Exhibit B are you saying that freedom comes with consequences? That not all things can be equal?

We need a revolution in every facet of our lives to achieve post-racial consciousness. As Africans, we must teach the younger generations about nationhood and national pride. We can apply the teachings of Garvey, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Lumumba, L’Ouverture, Nzinga, Malcom X and Asantewa, to name just a few. Until we break the beast of white supremacy we will never have racial harmony; the system is not designed for harmony, it’s designed for power. The labels we fight are a product of this system, created from before we were born. We have been programmed from birth to think and act outside of our worldview, to fit into the system and to keep the cogs of it turning. And bear in mind, its not us who are violent, lets get that straight. As a race, we have never committed the atrocities akin to that of the Europeans; theirs is a blood thirsty and cruel history. We have never stolen people from their land and objectified them to a point where they no longer know who they are, and are made to uphold the very same systems set to destroy them.

I’m not a firefighter; I will not jump on every race issue to campaign against. I don’t know why the ancestors spoke to me about Exhibit B, but I am glad they did and I obeyed them. In doing so, I learned about myself and the world in which I live, and also developed a newfound love for my race. We are unified in our struggle, we are still resistant and we are still hopeful. We may not have our connection to the land as before but it is in our hearts and that cannot be changed. I am passionate about breaking the chains of mental enslavement and learning and growing as a people.

I agree wholeheartedly with Biko, we can write or create what we wish; and if it is really about freedom of expression then why is it not equal for all? Minister Louis Farrakhan has been banned from the United Kingdom for sixteen years, despite his ban being overturned. It was overturned again, but he cannot come into the country — what about his right to free speech? Those in power determine who can say what, who can create what, and whether or not it’s heard or seen. If we truly have free speech let every man and woman speak and create let us all have the platform given to those in power or with privilege. I am not against Exhibit B, I am against the system that allows it to be shown, but then attempts to silence me and 23,000 people. That is not equality, that is racism- an arm of the beast we call white supremacy. Let’s call the monster what it is. 

It has been a pleasure, and thank you.    

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