Opinion: Should Exhibit B’s Barbican run have been cancelled?

Opinion: Should Exhibit B’s Barbican run have been cancelled?

After fierce protests, the show's cancellation has led to renewed questions about censorship in the arts

Exhibit B – a live art installation by South African artist Brett Bailey – has been cancelled in London, following protests. Neil Cooper, who gave the show’s Edinburgh run 5 stars, responds to the accusations of racism levelled against it

When Brett Bailey's Third World Bunfight company presented Exhibit B as part of the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival, the show's 21st century reimagining of colonial era human zoos – when black Africans were shown in front of their white thrill-seeking masters as novelty artefacts to gaze on – garnered a slew of five-star reviews.

As someone who gave Exhibit B a five star review in this publication, I was aware of the accusations of racism that had been levelled against Bailey, a white South African artist, before I saw the show's series of tableau vivant. These accusations came from protesters in various countries where Exhibit B had been seen, as well as in Britain, where it was set to transfer from Edinburgh to the Barbican's Vaults space in London this week.

The Barbican’s announcement that their week-long showing of Exhibit B has been cancelled following road-blocking protests on the first night follows an online petition organised by journalist Sara Myers, whose call to the Barbican's Sir Nicholas Kenyon to withdraw the show attracted some 22,989 signatories.

While I respect the right of every one of those signatories who has seen Exhibit B to protest against the show and to highlight the racism they saw in it, I wonder how those who signed it but haven't seen the show are feeling. Here, after all, was what looked to me like a serious meditation on racism performed by a cast of black actors who presumably became involved in Exhibit B of their own volition, and who presumably believe that what they are doing isn't racist in any way.

I may be wrong, and if any of the performers in Exhibit B feel that they have been cajoled into taking part in it in any way, or feel that they are somehow being manipulated, exploited or misrepresented in any way, I hope they will speak out. As I hope too that Brett Bailey will speak out about any charges of colonialism or racism that have been lodged against him.

My personal experience of Exhibit B, as I attempted to look the performers in the eye while they silently depicted real-life people from past and present – including the bound and gagged immigrant who died on an aeroplane while in the care of a private security firm in 2010 – was uncomfortable to say the least.

For a white, wet, liberal male like myself who comes from Liverpool – a city that built its fortune on the back of slavery – it provoked feelings of guilt concerning how one sector of society could exploit another with such cruelty. I witnessed something that was complex and deeply troubling, but in my mind, at least, I did not see something that was racist. Indeed, in my mind, Exhibit B was opposed to racism at every level in one of the most powerful theatrical spectacles I have ever seen in the last 20 years of writing about theatre and art. But then, as a white, wet, liberal male, I would say that, wouldn't I?

There was a time when protests against art were left to the self-styled moral majority of Mary Whitehouse and her fundamentalist associates, who would cheerily call on plays and TV shows which they considered to be depraved or immoral to be banned outright, despite the fact that they'd never actually seen them. While the protesters against Exhibit B aren't acting on such eccentric religious grounds, but on serious accusations of racism, the same sense of absolutism is there.

But at least I had the opportunity to see Exhibit B: I was able make my own mind up about it and see what all the fuss was about. Friends who saw the show have hated it, and have posited some very solid arguments why. The show's cancellation, however, means that no-one else in London and probably anywhere else in the UK will have the choice to praise or condemn something they've seen for themselves. Whichever way you dress that up, it's called censorship.

Exhibit B

  • 5 stars

A modern look at racism.