Life without free expressions in art would not be ideal and few would argue that to censor the freedom of expression – the very oxygen that gives life to art would be to our peril. Consider, the history of carnival born as a form of protest with dance, performance, theatre and dress conspiring to politically express the tortures of colonialism when to speak was too dangerous. Art creates the disordered opportunity to reflect back to us, a multitude of complex emotions we seem unable to unravel without it.
Brett Bailey is an affluent white South African as well as an artist who specialises in race depictions. Quite recently, he has recreated the notion of a human zoo called ‘Exhibit B’ due to be exposed at The Vaults on behalf of the Barbican, in September 2014. Withholding my scepticism for a moment, he says his particular fascination is in the capacity and character of the human zoo to dehumanise. With concern for the harm caused through slavery, Bailey believes that by recreating the brutal images of Africans enslaved, sitting in cages, or chained to a masters bed waiting to be raped for example, that he can affect a reverse of that gaze. He seemingly wants, by recreating these images, to cause a form of social self-reflection in the mind of the viewer so as to invoke the terrible atrocities slavery continues to represent – perhaps to generate some sort of remorse?
The question in this article then, is in a racist society, is this remotely possible? Can the slave in this installation, return the gaze so effectively as to overcome his or her own subjectification? More significantly, and in a sort of Pinter-esq move, can the gaze be returned so powerfully as to render the spectator unexpectedly aware of his or her advantageous white legacy of racism? What are the odds? Bailey seems relatively confident but you must forgive some of us if we are much more concerned. This is because, if there is no reverse in the gaze between the slave and the ‘slave owner’ (they do pay £20 to get in), ‘Exhibit B’ not only fails but fails dramatically.
In a racist media driven society, drunk on structural power relations, black is always the spectacle from a gaze that fixes black as the object – the phallic, the dangerous, the obedient, the the. Denied in that gaze is the right to be a person beyond a white reading that always sees itself as ‘better’. If the slave in Bailey’s work fails to switch that gaze, it remains fixed as it was at the point of the £20 exchange. Hence, what is at the heart of such a purchase? What was the white viewer hoping to see or feel? I doubt whether pain, anxiety or remorse was the bargain anticipated for that price. We might say at a bare minimum that ‘curiosity’ is a price worth paying. Was it a curious ‘back to the future’ experience where order at least across race lines, was once so clearly understood so that everyone knew their place, that encouraged such a visit? Might, just might this curiosity involve a hint of pleasure? Desire? Dare I say, even with some hopeful satisfaction? Could we contrast this viewer to the viewing of a beautiful piece of art? Perhaps, like a rich oil painting exuding deep colours with a sense of tangible reality? Good art, after all, can be so good at touching all of the senses
Needless to say, I am but a short distance away from suggesting that ‘Exhibit B’, whether well-intentioned or otherwise, is cheaply trading off the historical white obsession with blackness, black bodies, power and white masculine anxieties. Across social media sites we have seen a number of police attacks upon black bodies and in the last couple of months a number of killings including, Michael Brown from Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner from Staten Island, New York dying at the unnecessary hands of police. Recent research in the UK collated by the Runnymede Trust and the National Equality Panel (2010) show that since the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, there have been over 90 more racist murders and counting. Even the disproportionality of black men in prison is now larger than in the USA – five times more black people are incarcerated proportionally than whites. Moreover, young black men are seven times more likely and Asian young men twice as likely to be stopped and searched than white. To add to this, most children who live above the fourth floor in blocks are black and Asian.
To say the very least, we can reasonably say white society is still caught up in an irrational fear of blackness that unequivocally lies at the heart of the dehumanising experiences of African people. Until white society finds the courage to take a profound no doubt, nervous look at itself, a £20 voyeuristic view of yet another disempowered African body is just not going to cut it. You cannot solve these racial and masculine anxieties by doing more of the same, 500 years later. Feeling a superior sense of authority over a black body placed in chains in a cage, essentially for entertainment, says less about the African and great deal about the incredible pervasive insecurities as expressed through whiteness. The Guardian says Brett Bailey is said to have established himself as the most ‘fearless’ of artists yet said nothing as to any positive impact ‘Exhibit B’ may or may not be having as a piece of art just exposed in Edinburgh. Was not that supposed to be the point? Regrettably, the Guardian, like Bailey and the Barbican seem to be getting lost in the excitement that such provocation can generate, leaving the substance behind.
The problem for us as a black people is this continual perpetuation of African as demeaning and degrading to supplement white weakness – now in the name of art as ‘Exhibit B’. Call it art if you must but recognise within it, an endless fear of blackness and a profound inability to confront plain racism. If the cruelty of this human zoo was being ‘done to’ dogs or other animals, to physically challenged others, to children, to Zionists or to middle-class whites in any part of the world, there would be an absolute outcry, perhaps even tears but it is not. This human zoo is only recreating Africans as slaves chained up in cages, or by a bed ready to be raped by her master and therefore, it is art on sale for only £20.
Marlene Ellis, 30th August 2014