Human Zoos and Colonial Nostalgia

In a week that has seen an unarmed black teen shot down by police, a controversial art performance may seem frivolous or even insignificant. But Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B, a 21st Century reinterpretation of Victorian-era human zoos, in which black Africans were paraded in front of a curious European audience, is just the thin end of the wedge in which black bodies are dehumanised.

Bailey, whose show is currently the talk of Edinburgh festival, and is coming soon to London’s Barbican, claims he is interested in the way people were objectified in order to legitimise colonial policies. However, to interrogate abhorrent practices in our history, one does not need to replicate them. As recently seen with Kara Walker’s mammy sphinx, general audiences are rarely savvy enough to comprehend the complexities of such histories, and instead the entire work descends into a spectacle. A review of Exhibit B in the Guardian reveals the skewed power relationship between Bailey, a privileged South African, white, male artist, and his black performers, whom he instructs behave “with compassion,” but also makes fun of their appearance and is comfortable with openly using racial slurs. I find it difficult to believe that his intent for the viewer is to provoke thought and discussion, rather than just ogle.

Even allowing for artistic expression, offensive or not, there are wider questions to be addressed. Something is seriously wrong when not a single person in the programming department of an organisation as large as the Barbican, which is publicly funded and supposed to serve the diverse, multicultural audience of London, saw a problem with scheduling this show. This is what happens when diversity is relegated to being the sole responsibility of the outreach and education departments, while programming and curating remain homogenous. And good luck to that outreach department – is it really any surprise BME visitor numbers are so low, when this is how we are represented in the arts? A few schools and community workshops will not balance it out.

At a time when black artists are marginalised and struggling for visibility, arts institutions still see fit to provide a platform to such uninspired, tired tropes, in the spirit of some sort of colonial nostalgia. BME and women artists are frequently criticised or dismissed for themes of identity politics in their work, but black lived experiences seem to be acceptable fodder for white artists. Of course, white artists are not exempt from exploring colonial histories – it is a shared history, after all. However, other artists, both black and white have inserted themselves into the picture when examining oppressive historical practices, such as Coco Fusco & Guillermo Gomez Pena, Tracy Rose, and Leah Gordon. Perhaps Brett Bailey should stop putting people in cages and instead take a look at the zoo-keeper.


This article was also published in Minor Literatures.


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