Boycott an Art Exhibit – Race and Art – Open Letters: 1

Race and the Arts.

The present modes for dialoguing about race in the arts served a distinct purpose up until the mid nineties but now they are clunky, many are obsolete in their effectiveness. People of colour are interrogating and refreshing their arts practice all the time but receiving fewer opportunities to flex their creative wings on large mainstream platforms proving quality work from the diaspora abounds. As a black woman artist and a consumer of art I belong to a demographic who notices  the stinging pattern when a certain ilk of artists get fast passed and supported – the prompt for this post is a white male South African making theatre performances, predominantly using the black body and its stereotypical objectifying tropes. That fact this artist is hailed as South Africa’s ultimate theatre baby is troubling. So I supported the #BoycottExhibitB and #BoycotttheHumanZoo campaigns.

Although this initial letter is addressed to Brett Bailey, it is more a reflection, an  analysis and comment on the arts world, highlighting how artist like Bailey and his supporters actually engage with conversations around race and arts practice. I would like this response to be considered a push back, making transparent how (t)his type of dialoguing about race and art is forced upon many black and brown arts makers, and how we receive it. There is a habit of marginalisation in the processing of diverse work that so obviously needs to be broken because negotiations lacking genuine structural and attitudinal shifts for positive change fail to bring about balanced representation in the arts world. And I want to talk about it some more.

Open letter:

In response to a ‘report’ written by Brett Bailey entitled “Blood on the Tarmac” (which never got published except on your Facebook page)

Mr Bailey, I do not know you personally but I know some of your work which makes heavy use of the black body as objects for your creative and intellectual expression. I also understand that you have intended to make a piece of work framed within the disturbing actuality of human zoos entitled “Exhibit B”, excavating the dark, twisted annuls of brutal white supremist colonial history in Africa and of Her Diaspora, despite objectifying potentiality and result. In interviews, you have claimed honourable intentions with this piece of work  which can be summarised as highlighting and creating dialogue about the atrocities white European colonialists have committed over centuries.

After reading subsequent interviews it is revealed, on multiple levels, your lack of understanding of the deeper subtexts of your creative and directorial choices in Exhibit B – resonances that exist in white privileged blindspots that only experience can authenticate. It would be a huge failing and a brazen display of privilege if you attempted to refute that. And I don’t believe you will.

What you are though, is eloquent in ‘whitesplaining’ your process and your choice to push forward with the tour of Exhibit B. You obviously know your craft, but on the discourse of race, you are out of touch and make comments which ring with perceptible insincerity, which is both surprising and yet not, your being a ‘progressive’ white South African.

Iron mask with gag used for punishing slaves. Silencing as punishment.*

Firstly, you do not fully understand the convoluted nature of ‘silencing’ as part of the African diaspora experience*, (or as you call it repeatedly, stifling), because you negligently made a directorial choice to ‘silence’ the artists hired to perform. Silence as a theatre device (and not a particularly fresh one) could never, ever be equated to the violent silencing of black and brown voices over the centuries. Violent silencing manifests as cultural, social, political and psychological aggressions, spanning a spectrum from ground level micro-aggressions indiscernible to the ‘white’ ear and eye to the insidious silencing of neo-liberalists at grassroots and glocal levels in activism, to acts of brutal policing and legalized pathological state killing. With this in mind, the use of the word ‘stifle’ is entirely inadequate.

In your most recent ‘report’ you state ‘I opt to perform the work…’. But its not you, is it. It is again black bodies that must do ‘the work’. You have posted comments by outraged performers hired for Exhibit B and I question whether the bulk of their outrage is because your creative demands for the piece would tap a volatile human resource of suppressed fury and hurt from  present day and ancestral African diasporic oppression. Each performer had an artistic opportunity for race based cathartic release. As a black artist, that sounds like an appealing *paid* ‘high profile’ project. Clever, Mr Bailey. But what was a highly manipulative (though transparent) strategy was the re-labelling of the protestors’ call for Exhibit B to be withdrawn and decommissioned as ‘silencing’ the already silenced. In effect, that is exploiting the performers frustration for press opportunities, Mr Bailey. That is arts politics at its worst.

It is an obvious ploy for you to make regular use of quotes from those who have taken part in the performance. Why did you feel the need to do that? Were you aware of a flaw in the presentation somewhere that this kind of explaining for the participants would be necessary? Were you doubtful that you’d done enough work to communicate the full intent of the work? There should be no excuses if the work holds upright. And what of the comments of those artists involved who criticize the piece and its processes, or those who principally opted with their conscience to not take ‘the job’? We know performers were forbidden to speak – who you therefore silenced – about what was happening during the London boycott. We know they were not even getting paid Equity minimum.

It’s ‘success’ in other cities only highlights the problem of race discourse in the arts as faltering  widely because we know there were  protestations against the piece during other parts of the tour receiving no media coverage. In fact, you comments of ‘the braying mob’ on fed the monmo-cultured media machine. For authenticity to your artist’s commitment, with integrity and courage, let us see you engage with criticism in a live public arena. Present the unedited thoughts of the strategically selected cast you’ve thrust into the press, those who spoke  with what looked like uncomfortable reproach against their own folk in the name of “Art”. Provide a platform for those performers who did battle with conflicted voices inside themselves and probably with the voices protesting outside venues hosting Exhibit B who look like them, being pepper sprayed and tear gassed FOR THEM. The colonial modus operandi is in effect: divide and conquer.

“But I also believe in the right of artists to speak uncomfortable truths, and to challenge status quo.” – Brett Bailey

It is interesting you speak of the ‘right’ of the artist as opposed to the ‘role’ or ‘duty’ of the artist to challenge the status quo. It is interesting because your use of that particular word invokes the opinion, privilege and entitlement of the individual or a minority group over the rights of a majority collective. You politicise the essence of art into ‘them and us’, into heirarchy. If a gig, commission is attractive enough  (attractive meaning compelling because of financial or kudos reward), an artist will be manifest as a political mascot despite his/her intent and this is why the artist must be vigilant with their practice. Not self censoring but vigilant and authentic to the message they wish to convey, especially when making work they know will be controversial. These are the days of united public outcry to age old cultures of corruption and discrimination (in the arts also). There is much vocal and directly active resistance to a global epidemic of senseless killings by ‘citizens in uniforms’ with no accountability,  killings made legal where necessary to cover-up the truth of racism, and all of which is happening before our very eyes. The internet and the information age have quickened the evolution of communication patterns and modes of connecting. The big world conversations are being had online. Marginalised voices are revealed as oppressed peoples, experiencing and responding to the impact of oppression in ways unique to their cultures and pressing circumstances, and ordinary folk are innovating determined and sustainable movements because their fury drives them to action.

Artists need to be part of that deconstructive/reconstructive conversation and will attempt to provoke, comment and document (and profit from) times of crises such as these and whether that attempt is fully successful in the world at large is a gamble we are prepared to take. But we must be sure to be current with our craft AND content. Its part of the R&D. The climate of race politics relating to the African diasporic experience today is spotlight turbulent, it is forcing necessary transition. Globally, tensions have not been as overtly high for decades, but this has been brewing for decades and the artistic choices in Exhibit B are not in tune with the heightened climate or with the trajectory of race consciousness and contentiousness. In fact, the choices are regressive and Exhibit B is just another piece of questionable and detracting work about race and colonialism blocking the path for fresh work from black and brown artists born native to justice and equality seeking communities who speak authentically to the race equality struggle. Institutions and systems that do not support this work are also out of touch and do not genuinely seek to challenge themselves outside their own idea of what being challenged means.

“…to challenge the status quo.” Really? Exhibit B is a hyper stylised ‘representation’ of the narrative of a racist white colonial status quo, and all you have done is make an uncomfortable truth ‘beautiful’ through white appropriation of a black aesthetic. We see white appropriation all the time. No challenge there then. Now Exhibit B is under the ‘protection’ of the state police, it has been pulled to its bosom. It has been pulled there under the guise of protecting the fluid lines of censorship, lines founded in power and privilege, class and race.

“How is this possible? That a performance work that decries the brutal policing of Fortress Europe is relying on the machinery of its uniformed protectors?”

Umm… Go figure, Mr Bailey…. (clear evidence just how out of touch you are because this is not just any old performance. Its subject is the construct of race – a construct, which in the interests of the status quo, must be protected regardless of how many moral principles of humanity it breaks. The flip-side result of your artistic challenge: officially positioning yourself as a mouth piece in favour of the supremacy of power and privilege of a particular class and race, therefore subsequently, a tool for propaganda for a white patriarchal drive. Keep up, Mr Bailey.)

This may not have been what you “intended”, but by pulling the censorship card and hiding behind the trouser leg of institutions with track records of discrimination, by not commenting in the french police’s excessive action, you do not reveal yourself to be the individualistic, self-empowered progressive artist with integrity you paint yourself to be. The very act of withdrawal of Exhibit B is a more impactful comment on racism and its devices than permitting and feeding from the circumstances it has spiraled to, degrading all involved – those inside and outside the venue, and those who support it. It is disturbing that you thought this was challenging anything when you miss the point of how it is compounding so much that is despicable about racism.

“I don’t want to live in a society in which we silence ourselves in response to every politically correct outcry; in which artists are struck dumb by self-righteous mobs.”

It seems this ‘silence’ thing has different rules when it comes to you, Mr Bailey, emphasizing your sense of entitlement by playing it like a trump card in a game that you feel you own. And who wouldn’t with a media machine and  a militarized a police force backing them up.

To call those of the African Diaspora who struggle daily for justice, equality – and specifically in relation to this situation – representation, a ‘self-righteous mob’ seeking to uphold eurocentric notions of political correctness only reveals a severe lack of maturity around race discourse and makes no ideological sense. The protesters are there as part of the dialogue about race because other platforms where their voices are meant to be heard – the arts being one of them – are disproportionately limited, controlled and quota-ed, censored and silenced. Maybe you ‘intended’ more substance with this declaration extolling the principle of free speech, but privilege allows the lackadaisical luxury of such banal judgementally class based terms and name-calling. Also, the pepper sprayed and teargassed Paris protestors, the majority of whom were the black and brown bodies you so insistently claim to be seeking solidarity with, are the same group you proceed to call ‘mob’. Your inconsistencies render all your ‘intentions’ hollow and dubiously self-serving.

Exhibit B to Ferguson

A woman uses milk to help alleviate the symptoms of pepper spray after being sprayed by police at protest against Exhibit B in in Saint-Denis near Paris. – image Thabo Jaiyesimi. Click image to see more.

“I empathise with the people outside there, raising their voices and their banners. My art stands for what they stand for.”

A protester in Ferguson treated with milk after police tear gassing.

When I saw the night time street images of milk pouring down the face a woman of African descent, I thought I was looking at more images of the people of Ferguson who have put their bodies on the line for justice. I discovered they were from french police action against protesters outside the Theatre Gerard-Philip last week. I learned that from your hotel room you had taken photos of militarized police lines and teargassed protestors sharply echoing the occupation of the Ferguson community and posted them on Facebook. If you fail to see the connection between the narratives of black and brown bodies (and genuine white allies) on front lines all over the US protecting their dignity as human beings and that of their children and forebears, resisting state and institutional inequality by standing up to be counted in the struggle for justice; if you fail to see how a grand jury decision to not indict any police officer who has killed a black person as violent silencing; if you fail to see this connection with  those of the petitioners and protestors against Exhibit B, then you are not the ally we need on side. Your display of solidarity is a thin veil over a clumsy, self appointed positioning nobody asked for. And titling your ‘report’, “Blood on The Tarmac” suggests pseudo-poetic opportunism: an attempt to subsume the protest into your art piece. Your declarations scream “white saviour”. Another one. Challenging what again?

True allyship requires the ally-seekers agenda-free intentional listening ear, mindful of the nuanced voices forged from the nuanced nature of racism. You, as an artist, are expected to understand the value of this kind of subtext and nuance because as a director, you demand that kind of attention from your hired performers. I, the petitioners and protesters demand that same level of heedfulness from you rather than your selective deafness to our stance AND  to the default, outdated comments from your supporters that diminish, vilify, criminalise the Black (and Brown) voice, and which you claim to ‘loathe’. You are advised to listen closely to and meditate on the ugliness that supports your work. You remained silent about it while it raged until recently. Now that it serves you best to distance yourself from throm that din. #Loyalties?

The Boycott Letters Final note: Oath the Art

I am a Black Woman Artist and it is exactly because of my love and overstanding of the power and impact of art that I and many are opposing you. We fully understanding everyone is entitled to make what they want and that institutions are meant to exist to support work that represents the diverse demographic of arts consumers whose taxes publicly fund them. #BoycottTheHumanZoo (and #BoycottExhibitB) challenge the quality and equality of representation in both – what gets commissioned to be made and who supports the work’s production and run.  Art is the realm to change minds. It must serve. Artists and arts institutes have duty to serve Art, not for Art to service them.

This introductory open letter is a heads up to a series of comments to be made, and they are  addressed more to the world of arts at large than just to you, Mr Bailey, letters and videos interrogating the need for these campaigns to be ignited. These open letters are designed to interrogate the pathways that greased Exhibit B’s conception to manifestation which has yet been sufficiently disproved as innately institutionally racist.

To come:

1) why Exhibit B is not as successful a piece of art as those who support it would like to believe: How the very act of its production is symptomatic of institutionalised racism in the arts

2) Why pulling the censorship card is a failing on your and the arts establishment and institutions part in this instance – a talking head video

3) Why “The Fury Is Real” – how the misrepresentation of #BoycottTheHumanZoo equates to a propaganda smear campaign: the difference between white anger and black fury.

Mr Bailey, discussions and discourses around race has moved into the 21 century for real. You, your work (and the bulk of your supporters) haven’t.

(Not) Yours (to appropriate).


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Marielle says:

    Wowww!! Love it! Really enjoyed reading this. I’m not acquainted with the Exhibit, but I understand where you’re coming from. Thanks for sharing this with the rest of us. ❤

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