The South African artist speaks out after anti-racism protesters shut down his controversial Exhibit B show
South African artist Brett Bailey is "pissed off and frustrated" after his controversial Barbican show "Exhibit B" was pulled by organisers. The performance piece has been the scourge of anti-racism campaigners for the past month, with 22,500 people signing a petition calling for its cancellation. On Tuesday opening night, 200 protesters blockaded the road leading to the gallery entrance.
The shuttering of the exhibition has ignited a firestorm of debate over censorship and institutional racism in art. Bailey describes the work as a critique of historic racism that seeks to highlight the racial divisions still present in the modern world. In the piece, 13 black performers stand motionless, chained and imprisoned in tableaux reminiscent of 19th and 20th century human zoos that exhibited black and indigenous people as "exotic artefacts".
Simon Woolley, the founder of Operation Black Vote, told the Guardian that "Exhibit B" was nothing more than a "vanity project" for the white South African artist. "Having people objectified in this humiliating way was always going to cause a fierce reaction," he said.
The Barbican confirmed that "Exhibit B" would not go ahead, stating: "The Barbican has done everything we can to ensure London performances can go ahead – including continued dialogue with protestors and senior Barbican staff meeting with the leaders of the campaign and attending a public meeting to discuss the issues raised by the work."
"We respect people's right to protest but are disappointed that this was not done in a peaceful way as had been previously promised by campaigners. We believe this piece should be shown in London and are disturbed at the potential implications this silencing of artists and performers has for freedom of expression."
Dazed speaks to Bailey about facing up to accusations of racism, his surprise at the cancellation, and why he sees the media frenzy over the work as a form of "worrying conservatism".
How are you feeling at the moment?
Brett Bailey: I'm pissed off and frustrated.
How do you respond to claims that your work is racist?
Brett Bailey: I'm critiquing racism. This is a piece of work about how in the 19th century there was a particular way of representing colonised people in ways to dehumanise and objectify them in order to legitimise colonial policies. These methods were lent scientific credence and so the victims had to live with the stereotypes that were created for them. That's what this is about.
So this was a way of looking at how we used to be? The horrors of our past?
Brett Bailey: No, it’s what we’re still like – racial profiling is still alive and well. If you have black skin you are going to be stopped, if you're going to a shop then the cameras are going to zoom in on you. It's still alive today. This is a piece about what is happening right now, people are afraid of people from other parts of the world because of what they look like, and where does that fear come from? The same thoughts that were created and solidified and given scientific conformation 150 years ago – we are still living with it. We need to question the way people are represented; the way people are presented in the media is not always innocent, it is often loaded and we carry a lot of that baggage with us.
Were you surprised by the protest?
Brett Bailey: Yeah obviously I am, I’m surprised that it got so big. It was a sensationalised media report. I don’t work in the binaries of ‘black and white’ or ‘right and wrong’, and that’s the beauty of art – it can be viewed in many different ways. This was a frenzy generated by people who haven’t seen the work. I see it as a really worrying conservatism.
Will the protests change the way that you work?
Brett Bailey: No, this is the third city this work has performed in. There was a small protest in Berlin, whereas in Amsterdam it was really well received – black people saw it as a rallying cry to put views on the table, the work brought awareness to the issue. The work can be taken in so many different directions, I feel like if the protesters had came to view the work their minds would have been changed. I'm not sure I will change.
Do you feel silenced?
Brett Bailey: There are 12 or 13 black perfomers that are taking part in this exhibition, all of whom are from London. What really infuriates them is that people think that they are just doing it for the money, that they are just pawns and not thinking it through so they're frustrated. As for me, my frustration is that I can't get this work out there, as I think it's important and raises many issues worth talking about.
Do you think it's insulting to the performers to suggest that they're pawns in your work?
Brett Bailey: In the last room of the installation, the performers talk about how conflicted they were when they heard about this work, why they decided to do it, these people really wanted to get behind it and be a part of it. To negate that is just tragic.
Where do you go now?
Brett Bailey: The Moscow Museum of Modern Art in a couple of weeks time, a couple of weeks in France and then onto Chile – the work just keeps moving.