By: Gillian Schutte
Pics: from www.thirdworldbunfight.co.za Eroticisation
Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B – an art installation that recreates the horrors that white colonialists wreaked on black body, came under fire when Black communities in London started an online petition calling for the Barbican to withdraw the Human Zoo (as it had come to be known). The outrage is in response to the fact that Baily uses live black people in the installation – some shackled to beds as sex slaves, others in cages and some semi-naked. The petition and subsequent street protests against his installation are premised on the fact that this installation objectifies Black body and normalises the oppression of Black folk by deeming it ok to display live Black people oppressed, shackled and incarcerated as edutainment. Many Black protestors said that racism is an ongoing lived experience for them and that they did not need an art installation which exploits Black body and Black suffering in order to learn about racism. The critique also rests on the fact that this installation is more about a white audience and besides the display of Black body has little to offer a black audience. The petition had 22 000 signatures at the time of writing this piece.
Of course the backlash to protestors from the high arts fraternity has been massive, with art professors, journalists and general art lovers writing off this counter narrative as an irrational, vicious missing of the point. What becomes clear is the investment this class puts in the sacrosanctness of fine art codes as well as their right to ‘freedom of expression,’ which they clearly deem way more important than the rights of the protestors.
Looking at Bailey’s installation through a critical race lens it indeed does little more than reveal the white collective racial fetishism that eroticises ‘black suffering’ and expediently turns this notion into art. Despite Bailey’s protestations to the contrary this installation undoubtedly pushes the historical ideological reproduction of a primal and irrational Black sexuality as one that needs to be shackled and muted. To begin to think that it is OK to reproduce the scene of a live black sex enslaved woman in a contemporary arts setting is the manifestation of white privilege being totally invisible to most white people themselves. This renders them incapable of seeing this insult through the Black lens.
Would Bailey have shown dead white Jewish bodies in gas chambers or an assortment of white bodies with various fascinating disabilities in a Freak Show exhibition of this nature? Would he have displayed naked children to make a point about paedophilia or naked Ukrainian women shackled and bound to beds to talk of the International sex slavery trade to Western countries? And more importantly would he have been allowed to? No, because these atrocities would implicate contemporary white businessmen as the consumers of this flesh trade. One can only imagine the horrified response to these suggestions from donors, benefactors and sponsors – and the white backlash would no doubt have been massive.
So why is it the natural default position in the dominant discourse that it is normal to display naked and oppressed Black body as art – and parade Black subjugation as entertainment?
Bailey has tried to explain his installation off as a form of education and a way to get whites to confront their history via the ‘gaze trope’ – in which he gets his actors to stand stock still and only use their eyes to gaze back at the onlooker thus magically creating some sort of inner conflict and inner transformation. He claims this as an experiential conversion that works for both Black and white audiences.
In the end though, it becomes about him more than anyone else. It is through his assumed identification with the Black protagonists and the transfer of his narcissistic desire to be viewed as ‘a white, who gets it,’ that the viewers experience the installation. That is because, I have read, he tells them his views and his methodology before they walk through the installation so he directs their experience through his own gaze. In this way he ensures that there can be no critique of his subject position.
Could this simply be an exhibition that re-inscribes collective white male neuroses and feelings of inadequacy in a fast diversifying world? Is this, in fact, a pathetic attempt by a fragile white male ego to re assert his hold and supremacy over the Black subject?
His tight individualistic control over this exhibit and the (actors) ensures that the white Male subject is positioned at the centre of representation by a desire for mastery, power, and control over the Black ‘other’.
Bailey sets himself up as the Freak Show Master in charge of the Black narrative. It is he who enables well-heeled white folk to feel awfulness and then after a few glasses of wine congratulate themselves for moving beyond their ancestry and being colour-blind. Yet most would not even consider involving themselves in deconstructing the on going systemic racist and oppressive system that is still very much in place. It is in fact his gaze on his audience – his controlling gaze on the Black subjects and his own inner self-congratulatory gaze that means the most in the end.
Black ‘subject’ is never seen without the white catalyst rendering it accessible to other whites it seems. Not that Bailey or his supporters appear to be aware of any of this as clearly the voices of the Black protestors are as invisible to them as their own white privilege.