When did we get to such a point that we now regard public protest as a form of censorship and a State institution such as the Barbican, as a victim of freedom of speech? Historically, censorship has been firmly rooted in State control across a whole range of would-be-freedoms otherwise deemed to be socially unsuitable. For example, political censorship reflects the fear of ‘domestic ‘ and ‘foreign’ enemies; in the early 18th century and with worry for our moral and spiritual health, religious censorship was encouraged; from 1692 in the literature world, Societies for the Reformation of Manners was executed through laws to fight obscene literature; Victorian obsessions with a moral code insisted children should be seen and not heard; and under the Thatcher Government, the now infamous section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, made it illegal to intentionally promote homosexuality. More recent challenges involve government attempts to control the Internet but now it would seem, something much more insidious and deeply perverse entails the right to shut down the public voice when it challenges the ‘artistic’ State? Unlike the Satanic Verses, nobody ordered a Fatwa against Brett Bailey for his ‘black human zoo’ though you might think there had been one given the irrational response to those who opposed him.
On Tuesday the 23rd of September 2014 and after a 1-month long campaign lead by the very measured and talented Sara Myers, an exhibition, coined as the ‘human zoo’, was stopped in its tracks. Such was the public disgust against the exhibiting of real Africans chained in cages to depict images of slavery, Myers was able not only to generate a petition of 22,500 signatures but a team around her to organise and contribute to the protest – including myself. Sponsored by the Barbican (a public funded body), visitors were invited to pay £20.00 to come and view the semi-naked bodies of African ‘slaves’ said to be a form of art by its creator, Brett Bailey. Bailey argued that it embodied artistic qualities that further informed us about the legacies of slavery. It apparently challenged racism. We said actually, it perpetuated racism. Bailey and the Barbican said we should see it before judging it. We said we would judge it without seeing it just as it had been created without seeing us, or any black communities. Paradoxically, only one of the Barbican board members had actually viewed the exhibition themselves. Needless to say, the success of our campaign ultimately prevented you from seeing the Bailey Barbican Black Human Zoo.
So what is censorship? Reichman, a US Professor Emeritus of History, says it is the removal, suppression or restricted circulation of literary, artistic, or educational materials – of images, ideas and information – on the grounds that these are morally or otherwise objectionable in light of standards applied by the censor.
The problem is, when ideas and information clash who is censoring whom? Is art more important than the existence of racism? The traditional and ‘intellectual’ answer is yes because art is perceived as the ‘honest broker’ between liberty and oppression. Bailey argued that if we gave his exhibition a chance, we would see its educational value. Indeed, if we did not, we would be refusing to be informed, and thereby acting as a member of the mindless many that art continually tries to resist. This has been the dominant media narrative in opposition to our campaign. It is a narrative that has legitimised an onslaught of insults directed particularly at Myers, frequently described as fascist, ignorant and inevitably lacking in the higher intelligence of the Bailey supporting others. To say the least, dismissal of 22,500 signatures was not only arrogant but also incredulous.
The argument that we should at least have attended the exhibition before judging it, presumed if we had experienced the exhibition as singularly racist post viewing, that it would have held some value by the more ‘cultured’ Bailey Barbican supporters. I was certainly of the view that that was unlikely and that it would only inculcate their positioning of us as ignorant mindless thinkers – despite their apparent patience and attempts to help us to the contrary. Others in the campaign were also concerned with the insane idea of us paying to go and watch a pain, the legacy of which we continue to experience. What could looking at the objectification of our enslaved black bodies release us from? Were we likely to feel better or worse? For example, if I asked Jews to enter the construction of a gas chamber to watch their own suffering people staring back at them whilst choking for air, could this somehow make them feel better? And if a white German created it and asked in addition, to pay him £20 for the pleasure, would you view this as clever artistic work or something a little insensitive? And would it be ok for the white German to insult those Jews standing up to him? What if the performers in the show said they enjoyed doing it in any event. Would that make it all right?
My only conclusion like many of us, was to consider that the Bailey Barbican show was not really intended for black people. He said he wanted his viewers to experience the terrible tortures of slavery so that they might reflect and learn something more insightful. Presumably then, Bailey and the Barbican preferred as their customers, fascists, bigots and right-wing extremists. Yet at £20 a head, the Bailey Barbican show narrowed their customer profile to either the upper classes or the middle-class/income bigots for most certainly, this price would be beyond the budget of the poor. Possibly, a very privileged South African, white man, did not realise that, though I imagine the Barbican ought to have done? Presumably, having identified this essentially white middle-class audience as needing some racial salvation, they recognised that whist this particular white middle-class group had a significant problem with racism, the objectification of enslaved black bodies could be an aid in their rescue. It followed that if they viewed ‘us’ ‘properly’, they might have looked and seen something new though I ask here, what could that newness be? What could exist for middle-class whiteness that was not present prior to such a viewing? Like the other campaigners, I argued that since this was only a reproduction of the same without for example, the presence of white bodies, it was not possible to see something new. A rehash is only a rehash dressed up in language and persuasion. But as a rehash, it was not thereby, a new challenge at all but a repackaging of the very racism it purported to challenge. Bailey and the Barbican obviously knew that the viewer could choose to see whatever they wanted to see and therein lays the motivation to buy the £20 ticket. Thus, they would also be permitted further indulgence into their racial curiosity, their insatiable intrigue and fascinations, not to mention their secret arousals – all in the name of trying to overcome racism. They might have experienced self-disgust and revulsion confronted with black desire whilst feeling safely secure in that moment’s opportunity to release his/her fear of the black threat for there in the zoo, blackness could be viewed as historically ‘tamed’ and sexually available to the master – once more if, just for a moment. Oh what joy for some – a luxurious nostalgic close and physical revisiting of the greatness in Britain. Exciting!
Do you think I want to go to work or otherwise be around those that have these thoughts still operating in their minds? We as a black people have invariably been on the receiving end of unhealthy white fantasies. What you should question is why I would not lack the motivation to stop such an event?
So, if art is allowed to perpetuate racism in the name of objective expressive, well-intentioned ideas, how can racism ever be challenged? We had here anti-racism disturbingly censored in the name of art. Was it right for the will of the people such as Myers and the campaigners plus 22,500 petitioners, who shouted this racist claim and refused to co-operate with ‘racist art’, to be subjected to crude unjustified abuse because we exercised NOT CENSORSHIP, but our ‘freedom of speech’ and the democratic power of persuasion?
On the day it was stopped, the campaigners stood outside The Vault, London SE1, with their drums and discipline, determined to make the pain in our hearts heard. There were no arrests, no allegations of criminal damage and had just 1 police officer present. On any Saturday, a Premier football match would have required so much more. And yet, because the force of justice in this struggle closed the exhibition, Myers and the campaign have been met with even more vicious attacks upon our integrity – particularly and with some irony, motivated by Bailey who on his Facebook, described us as a ‘mob’. Is he sure he knew the apartheid struggle if for him, we were a mob? Is it even appropriate for a ‘visitor’ to speak of us in this way? Isn’t it only possible for him to speak in this way from a position of white privilege to the apparent ignorant black locals who in his perception, do not know how to behave ‘properly’ or should I say, ‘obediently’. He cannot understand why his unimaginative work should be met with defiance and given that it has, we the campaigners must surely be in the incredibly ignorant wrong. How dare we black others tell him, this is a disrespectful way to represent our history. How dare we tell Bailey and the world, that we are tired of these endless narrow representations of the black body as slaves that have always been over-sexualised through the white gaze. How dare WE WANT OUR HISTORY KNOWN BEFORE THE ONSLAUGHT OF SLAVERY. How dare we have a different way to teach the past than these cheap salacious white representations of us? How dare we understand that white privilege blinds the knowing of who we are but that our blackness illuminates so brightly what whiteness so clearly is that we have no alternative but to say, ‘no we will not voluntarily participate in your white obsessions of us’. That is why we campaigned against the exhibiting of us as a black human zoo for to not do so, would have made me and I know, the rest of the campaigners who I can only thank, feel so terribly ashamed. It was a small victory but a necessary one. And be aware of one other thing, the Barbican closed the show through ‘choice’. It’s argument concerning public safety does not stand up to scrutiny but it does allow them in making that false complaint, to scream censorship!
So there really is something more important than art. It is self-respect. It is human dignity, integrity and the future for all children regardless of race, gender or sexuality. If art fails to encapsulate that, it is nakedly exposed as redundant, captured and itself enslaved but for its name. Just as the Cherokee Jeep is a pathetic dishonourable unrelated legacy to the Indian name, so too is art as a much broader proposition, in danger of losing its creative relevance if it hasn’t already – for it looks to me like it has been sold to the highest neoliberal ‘artistic’ State bidder and we shall not trust art again when it is in their hands. The state of art is dying along with the freedom of speech……if we are not careful and forget to fight. What I take from Sarah Myers is always but always be willing to fight for what you believe in beyond words no matter what the odds. Get up, leave the computer and be active or there is nothing.
Take a well deserved rest Sarah. I don’t know how you kept going but I thank-you from one black woman to another, for your courage and leadership.
Check out instead: Muscovado http://www.burntouttheatre.co.uk/whats-on/