The white South African artist Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B has been described by its black participants as “a powerful tool in the fight against racism” whilst a petition that gained over 20,000 signatures labelled the Barbican’s decision to host the work as “an outrageous act of complicit racism”. After 200 protesters blockaded Tuesday’s opening the thousands that called for a boycott won some sort of victory when the show was called off. Unfortunately the decision was not taken because an anti-racist reason prevailed, but because the Barbican worried for the “safety of performers, audiences and staff.”
It is important to firstly take note of the kind of sentiment invoked when the ire of a protesting black crowd is seen as a risk to ‘safety’. This is especially the case given that the protest was not a surprise mobbing of an innocent art event, but the culmination of a campaign that called for the very real concerns that a gross act of racism was taking place to be taken seriously.
But there is a wider point to be made too. Are we to lament Bailey being censored? The kind of critic who seeks to make this sort of claim is one who understands very little about racism, and yet those who defend Exhibit B as a piece of anti-racist artistic provocation have rallied to cry that art has been censored and freedom of speech has been curtailed. Of course this ignores that censorship is not simply a case of pressing the mute button on something you don’t like – it is a relation of power, much like racism itself. In the art industry it has everything to do with who gets to make the systematic decisions about who is exhibited where and nothing to do with black protesters boycotting an event.
Only in thought experiments do equal acts of free speech collide with one another to produce harmonious discourse. In reality one act of free speech is toured around the world’s prestigious galleries and discussed and reviewed in the pages of art magazines. The other act of free speech is decidedly ignored by gallerists and has the police called on it when it gets too close to the first. This imbalance is a problem that all those committed to art as a political act must contend with and in the Bailey controversy the intersection between race and the politics of art is brought into stark relief.
It seems the case that Exhibit B can be offered its platform because it engages the question of race precisely as objects fit for a gallery. The ‘human zoo’ turns its black participants into those objects and audiences into spectators of those objects. Rather than appearing as the critical intervention Brett Bailey may claim it to be, the human zoo is recreated and ends up representing the horrors of those 19th century and more contemporary injustices. The problem is representation is no neutral act – it takes a great amount of piety to display painful histories of oppression as merely controversial objects for consumption in a gallery.
Political artists working from positions of privilege should ditch the piety of their own freedoms to be creative and pay more mind to what it means to be fundamentally less free. Racist oppression is met with the anti-racist struggle against it and it is about time we concentrated on producing works that are a part of this struggle – not so distant from them that they end up calling the police on protests. The systematic exclusion of black struggle from the art industry is the real censorship.