Exhibit B

Photo : Murdo MacLeod
Photo : Murdo MacLeod

I’m back in controversy corner again.

Exhibit B by Brett Bailey (a white artist) is an art installation involving black actors re-imagining a Human Zoo (a place in the olden days where Europeans came to gawk at non-Europeans in their tribal garb… a bit like an amalgamation of travelling tourist traps) in a modern ‘subversive’ way.

The work is intended to provoke white audience members into feeling guilty about our Imperial past, white supremacy and the treatment of immigrants, but recently, after touring extensively, it was shut down at The Barbican in London by a ‘baying mob’ of black protesters who felt anger and hurt at the way they had been represented… The ‘baying mob’ say they were no such thing and The Barbican over-reacted.

There’s three immediate problems :

is it ok to use black experience when you don’t have any?

is it ok to assume it will have a guilty-feeling white audience?

The Arts Industry doesn’t seem to have many powerful black collectors or curators – does it have the right filter?

**I’m slightly obsessed with representation power – I think it’s because I’m not sure what I represent… and I’m not sure if anyone would be interested even if I did know.**

Brett Bailey’s attitude doesn’t help – he’s reacted huffily to the suggestion that he might not be entitled to express himself… That doesn’t show any great insight into the millions of ways that minorities and non-elites are denied a voice. In the 1980s this would have been countered by serious debates on television and radio – but the news-value of the arts has depreciated – so no one has an adequate platform for airing grievances or deeper meanings.

To me any form of shutting down or censorship feels wrong – although it has to exist. Not only can we not allow hate-speech or child porn or other morally suspect things… there isn’t enough professional public space for everything to be seen. Galleries select work. There is a process that supports Brett and hasn’t supported countless others.

I wouldn’t ban Exhibit B.

It’s obviously powerful.

But I don’t think it’s anti-racist.

Anything with nudity and shackles isn’t going to purely incite pity or shame… or at least not always for the thing we’re meant to be atoning for – the strongest images are things we fear but desire…  It’s also wrong not to factor in a black audience’s reaction. And if that reaction is one of feeling demeaned and humiliated then it can’t just be anti-racist.

I think it belongs more in the Punk-Goth-Cabaret-Harlequin bracket – where vanity and thwarted expectations take refuge in the abject corners of past marginal cultures – the freak shows, the Weimar Republic, haunted Victorian nurseries… A narrative space that Art with its conceptual jargon about light and stillness and found objects is struggling to explain.

Some links  for more info :






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